Consumers often ignore allergy-warning labels on food

Canadian research has shown that allergy labels on food products, many of which present the allergy warnings in different ways, have different effects on consumers. Studies have shown the effects of allergy labelling on people from food advocacy associations and allergists offices, but this is the first one to show the effects on the ordinary consumer, those who are either directly or indirectly affected by allergy.

The researchers, led by Dr Moshe Ben-Shoshan, professor of allergy and immunology at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada, recruited over 2400 individuals from the general public as well as advocacy groups and allergy registries. Those classed as directly affected (totalling 1318 people) were households where at least one family member had food allergy, and indirectly affected (totalling 1113 people) included those who were buying food for others with allergies such as students and pre-school age children.

The participants answered questions about purchasing foods, and about the warnings they carried, such as ‘not suitable for’, ‘may contain’ and ‘made in a facility that processes’.  The warning that was most effective in deterring purchase of a product was found to be ‘not suitable for’. Interestingly, the least vigilant were those directly affected by allergy, indicating that people take more responsibility when preparing food for other people. People buying for children with allergies were more vigilant than when buying for adults. The most vigilant buyers were people from advocacy groups. People directly affected by allergy would be buying more frequently, which may make it harder to be cautious when making purchases based on allergy warnings.

The warning ‘not suitable for’ not only provides information for the consumer, it also makes the decision about whether to buy the item for them. However it may also lead the consumer to leave out of consideration other allergen warnings or potential allergens listed in the ingredients.

The researchers conclude that those with food allergies must be educated about the careful avoidance of offending allergens. Policies should look to promote the use of fewer variations of allergen warnings, and then only use them when contamination is strictly unavoidable.

Source: The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

First published in March 2012

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