Recalls may also be caused by food fraud; deliberate contamination of an ingredient by a cheaper alternative.
RQA said it is believed this was the motivation behind contaminating cumin with peanut protein (shells etc.) which led to numerous recalls in 2015 in the US.
Contamination of cumin with peanut resulted in 259 different products recalled through 47 events.
Informed consumer decisions
The consultancy company looked at allergen recalls in the US, Europe and Australia with 2016 data from January to October.
It said it was essential for foods to be labelled accurately so consumers can make informed decisions about what they eat to manage and prevent allergic reactions.
Talbot Underwriting, experts in product recall and contamination insurance, asked the firm to look into trends in allergen recalls.
Neil Evans, senior class underwriter at Talbot, said every year industry suffers many allergen-related recalls in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere.
“Allergen recalls can be highly costly and can even result in company closures; highlighting the importance of product contamination insurance cover for balance sheet protection,” he said.
“We wanted to get a better understanding on where the allergen risks are in order to see how we can best support our food industry clients.”
For the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allergen-related recalls [excluding the cumin incident] found, the number of products recalled has been increasing since 2014 and there was a large rise in 2016.
“We can almost predict that if there are no major widespread allergen contamination incidents, there will be around 340 product recall events related to allergens in 2017,” said RQA.
Peanut and milk are the two most common allergens that cause recalls. They are used in a range of products and so the high number reflects broad usage across the industry.
Next come soy and gluten, including wheat and then egg and colors and sulphites.
Across the pond and down under
RQA said EU data seems to show low numbers compared to the recall events reported via the US FDA.
This is because a large number of recalls related to allergen contamination or mislabelling are not reported via the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) but are limited to the member country where products are being sold.
At the end of 2016 there was around 120 notifications related to allergens reported across the EU via RASFF whereas there was about 100 in the UK.
Of those UK alerts, only around 15 were reported to RASFF as they did not involve products distributed across borders.
There was a peak in notifications in 2015 (like in the US) under the hazard category “allergens”.
Total notifications in 2016 are 50% higher than in 2014. Also, the peak in 2015 is not due to a large single event but an increase in individual or smaller events, found RQA.
Allergens involved in product recalls are milk then gluten (including wheat) but there was a higher than “typical” number of notifications for almond, egg and peanut in 2015.
Cereals and baked goods make up the largest category of involved products with 29% of all allergen notifications in 2016.
Other food product categories (such as fish, meat products and nut products) represent around 5-8% of notifications.
Almost 40% of notifications resulted from “official control on the market”, over 35% from “company’s own checks” and more than 15% from “consumer complaints”.
More than 30% of recalls in the past 10 years have been due to undeclared allergens, according to Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
A spike (of more than 20 recalls) in 2015 was due to several coconut milk, juice drinks and powder products being recalled due to undeclared dairy allergen.
Dairy is the cause of most allergen-related recalls with gluten, peanut and soy also impacting in low numbers.