On-pack allergen labelling: Permissive, not precautionary, approach 'would better protect consumers'

By Gary Scattergood contact

- Last updated on GMT

Researchers are calling for new allergen rules in Australia. ©iStock
Researchers are calling for new allergen rules in Australia. ©iStock

Related tags: Allergy, Food

Allergen labelling regulations in Australia need a complete overhaul, claims a new report, which argues the current voluntary use of 'may contain traces' statements are not adequately protecting consumers.

New research by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), being published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health​, examined reports of anaphylaxis in Australasia from consumption of packaged food products with or without precautionary allergen labelling​ (PAL),​ where the known allergen triggers were not a listed ingredient.

In Australia two types of labelling are used by manufacturers: mandatory labelling of all ingredients; and precautionary labelling, which is used  to inform consumers if a product may have traces of a certain substance.

In the study, members of the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy were invited to complete a questionnaire. Participants were asked to complete a survey reporting whether they have had seen any patients over the past three months reporting anaphylaxis following ingestion of a packaged food where the suspected food allergen was not a listed ingredient.

The questionnaire found there had been 14 reports of anaphylaxis from packaged foods, where the suspected allergen was not a listed ingredient. And of those reactions, 50% were reported from foods which did not have a PAL statement.

Precaution versus permissive

The study’s lead author, Dr Giovanni Zurzolo, postdoctoral fellow from MCRI and Victoria University pointed out that PAL labelling is currently voluntary — with some but not all packaged foods labelled with a variety of advisory warnings.

“Therefore, there is no effective way to currently determine whether or not an unlabelled product (foods without PAL) is safe for consumption by the food allergic community.”

The authors suggest that 'permissive labelling' that would highlight safe and suitable foods for allergy-affected individuals, and not just for foods which should be avoided, would be a better option.

Senior author Professor Katie Allen said the findings of this study show that allergy consumers could be taking "significant risks"​ in eating pre-packaged food.

“Our study showed that anaphylaxis to undeclared allergens is not rare and it did not appear to depend on whether the product was labelled with precautionary advice.”

“Current PAL practices do not assist consumers in selecting foods which are safe for consumption.

"Improvements in the regulation of food labelling are required to give consumers the right information to help them to make, safe choices," ​Professor Allen said.

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