Allergen advice boxes on labels should be mandatory, a new study suggests, as most consumers look at this rather than the ingredients list.
But the suggestion comes a week too late as MEPs have just voted in favour of new EU labelling rules, which means that allergenic substances must be highlighted in the ingredient list.
This was said to be for consumers to find the information on allergens “at first glance”.
The report, “How do peanut and nut-allergic consumers use information on the packaging to avoid allergens?” took place before the EU vote.
However, the authors state that: “Food regulators and industry should consider the extent to which consumers rely on unregulated ‘advice boxes’ and how ingredients lists might play a greater role in decision-making.”
There are several sources of allergy information on food packaging including product name, ingredients list, allergy (‘contains’) advice and precautionary (‘may contain’) information, as well as ‘may contain X’, indicating the risk of unavoidable cross-contamination.
The study, published in the journal Allergy, looked at the reasoning behind decisions made by adults allergic to peanuts and tree nuts when shopping for food.
It assessed the behaviour and thoughts of 32 participants recorded during their normal food shop, followed by a semi-structured interview.
The results showed that some participants used the ingredients list as their primary check for allergens, but most used the allergy advice (or ‘contains’) box. And many found the ingredients list more difficult to read than the allergy advice box.
Images and product names, not intended by manufacturers as an allergen risk assessment aid, were also used to inform choices, as was trust in supermarkets and brands.
This was sometimes based on bad experiences, but more often on assumptions about a company’s safety policies, or their product quality, despite a lack of informed knowledge of that company or its safety practices.
However, participants generally noted the value of the ingredients list for resolving uncertainties about an unfamiliar or novel product.
Suggestions to improve labelling included a desire for products to be clearly labelled as ‘free from’ and participants with tree nut allergy wanted labels to list the individual nut types.
The study stated: “It may also be useful for an allergen advice box to be mandatory and to state ‘no peanut’ or ‘no tree nut’ when this is the case.”
Food manufacturers can of course do this voluntarily and many already do. But it is not a requirement under new labelling rules, expected to come into force in October, with three years for food companies to adapt.
The study said: “In the absence of legislation to standardize the allergen advice box, allergic individuals must be educated and encouraged to scrutinize ingredients lists, to improve allergen avoidance.
“Food regulators and the food industry must ensure that these lists are clear to read.”
It adds: “Food regulators and industry should consider the extent to which consumers rely on unregulated ‘advice boxes’ and how ingredients lists might play a greater role in decision-making.”
Source: Allergy 2011; 66: 969–978. “How do peanut and nut-allergic consumers use information on the packaging to avoid allergens?”
Authors: Barnett J, Leftwich J, Muncer K, Grimshaw K, Shepherd R, Raats MM, Gowland MH, Lucas JS.