Food allergy incidence has been rising in the EU, with around 3.9 per cent of children suffering from an allergy - although allergies often become less severe or disappear in adulthood. The 12 major allergens recognised in Europe are: cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, nuts, soybeans, milk, celery, mustard, sesame, and sulphur dioxide (at levels of over 10mg/kg).
Since the November 2005, when EU directive 2003/89/EC came into effect, food manufacturers in Europe have been required to list these allergens on product labels, regardless of the amount of each in the finished product. However while the directive is clear about the requirement to label allergens used as ingredients, it is not clear about precautionary labelling, when tiny traces of an allergen may end up in a final product due to cross contamination during the production process.
Food manufacturers, alert to potential legal action if cross-contamination with an allergen should lead a consumer to suffer anaphylaxis, often use the phrase 'may contain [allergen].
According to the authors of the new study, "rather than helping the allergic consumer cope with their condition, such labelling restricts food choice further". They also warn that there is evidence of consumers ignoring all precautionary labelling, of consumers misunderstanding labelling terms, and of allergen-information being overlooked due to small font size or the appearance of information in multiple languages on packs.
The aim of the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Food Quality and Preference, was to explore whether different methods for delivery allergy information - on the label, in an in-store booklet, and intelligent communication technology (ICT) solutions - were useful to food allergy sufferers.
The study involved 287 participants from Germany, Greece and The Netherlands who filled out a web-based questionnaire on their preferred formats for receiving allergen information. The participants were all adults with real or perceived allergies, or adult carers of children with real or perceived allergies, and were recruited through adverts in national newspapers and trade magazines and via the emailing lists of national allergy patient groups. The questionnaires were prepared in English then translated into German, Greek and Dutch.
The information provision scenarios investigated were a standardised label with symbols, a booklet with allergen information, and ICT such as a bar code on individual products which could be scanned with a device that emits a warning signal if the product contains ingredients to which the consumer is allergic, an information terminal, and an online shop.
The participants were shown pictures of the different scenarios and explanations of their attributes, and were asked to rank their liking on a 7-point scale.
The researchers concluded that while ICT methods would not be suitable for replacing food labels entirely, but that they may be useful to provide consumers with supplementary information.
In general, most participants preferred a label, and the most popular format for labels was a box with standardised allergy information and a standardised symbol appearing on both the front and back of packaging. They were also in favour of labels showing the percentages of the allergens in the food product, as well as specific details about allergy management in the food chain.
Participants preferred to have a telephone hotline given on the food label than a website address.
The use of a symbol could be used to improve mandatory allergen labelling, the researchers found, and would function as a clear warning to consumers, but would not replace the written information.
The researchers found that ICT approaches could help solve the problem of multiple languages on packaging, as consumers using hand-held scanners would set them to their own language.
Some differences in preferences between the countries were observed. In Germany, for instance, a printed booklet was preferred over ICT - whereas for the Dutch and the Greek ICT was the second favourite format after labels. The Dutch were seen to be "significantly more positive about the all label attributes" compared to the Greek and German participants.
Food Quality and Preference, online ahead of print
Preferred information strategies for food allergic consumers. A study in Germany, Greece, and The Netherlands
Authors: Voordouw, J., Cornelisse-Vermaat, J.R., Pfaff, S., Antonides, G., Nielmietz, D., Linardakis, M., Kehagia, O., Frewer, L.