Frances Dale reports
The use of 'may contain' labels is one of the more frustrating areas of allergen management. The lack of allergen 'thresholds' (agreed amounts of an allergen below which 99% of allergic people will not react) and a total lack of standardisation in terminology has made it all but impossible for allergic people to genuinely understand the level of risk posed by a product which carries a 'may contain' warning.
Many well-meaning attempts have been made to quantify risk ('made in a factory which also uses nuts/milk etc', 'made on a line that also handles nuts/milk etc', 'cannot guarantee that ingredients are nut/milk etc free' and many more) but these have tended to create further confusion rather than, as intended, more clarity.
The Foods Standards Agency's guidance has long suggested 'not suitable for those with nut/milk etc allergy' as being the least ambiguous phrase but this has not been widely adopted.
To try to establish whether the different levels of warnings actually did convey different levels of risk – and how great the risk of allergen contamination in prepacked foods really is – the FSA commissioned a 'snapshot' survey to look at around 500 prepacked foods both with and without precuationary warnings (for gluten, milk, peanut and hazelnut) and to test them for allergen contamination. The results were published at the begining of the month and you can read them in detail here. But to give a brief overview.
1. Of the total number of samples tested, both with and without allergen warnings, the following percentage contained detectable levels of the allergen:
2. Of the total number of samples tested, without allergen warnings, the following percentage contained detectable levels of the allergen:
3. Of the total number of samples tested, with allergen warnings, the following percentage contained detectable levels of the allergen:
4. The total number of samples tested, with allergen warnings, in which no allergen was detected was as follows:
The highest levels of allergen detected were milk proteins in dark chocolate products in the confectionery category but all of these products carried a precautionary label for milk.
The results suggest that cross contamination for all of the four allergens is well controlled although the particularly low levels for hazelnut and peanut may, in part, be due to the fact that peanut and hazelnut contamination would be as 'particulates (heterogeneously distributed in the food product) rather than being distributed equally (homogenous distribution), as is more likely with gluten or milk contamination'.
The different precautionary wordings used on the products did not reflect the levels of contamination found.
This is certainly a useful and encouraging bit of work in that it suggests that manufacturers are, on the whole, making a genuine and successful attempt to control contamination within their processes. However, it is of little real help to those with serious allergies who will still need to take a calculated risk if they are to eat packaged foods as they could still fall into that percentage, low though it may be, of foods with detectable levels of their allergen.
First published November 2014