The University of Surrey led study, from February 2009 to April 2010, looked into the mechanisms for consumer choice when avoiding ‘trigger foods’ such as peanuts and other nuts, and the FSA said little work had been done before along these lines.
The agency is using its results to inform dietary advice to consumers with nut allergies and to steer the development of food allergy labelling policy, where allergen-related issues account for approximately 60% of UK product recalls.
32 adult volunteers with a peanut or tree nut allergy undertook three tasks to determine their food choices and purchasing decisions: these included an accompanied shop where they ‘talked aloud’ about factors determining product choice and face-to-face interviews.
A third task involved a ‘product choice reasoning task’ (PCRT), with volunteers given 13 potentially problematic food products and asked to ‘think aloud’ if they would be happy to buy the product and explain how they reached their decision.
However, the FSA said that most participants did not understand the voluntary (rather than statutory) status of allergen advice boxes, with some incorrectly assuming that products without an advice box indicated that products did not contain the main allergens and were therefore safe to eat.
The results are worrying, since although ingredients lists were used by most participants as a reliable source of information on allergen content, most said they relied more heavily on the allergy advice box.
Many participants also found precautionary ‘may contain’ nut warnings used by food manufacturers to indicate possible cross-contamination with a food allergen “not credible or desirable”; some ignored it while several avoided eating these products altogether.
“However, the majority of participants felt that it was almost impossible to avoid eating all products with ‘may contain’ type labelling as doing so would result in a very limited diet,” said the FSA.
Anaphylaxis Campaign food advisor Hazel Gowland, a project adviser to the study, said: "The study encompasses the experiences of a wide range of nut allergic people, aged 16-70 and from a range of backgrounds.
"The daily dilemmas they face support the need for clear and legible labelling, transparency in the use of 'may contain' labelling and improved allergy information and food safety allergen controls in restaurants."
In a recent paper for The Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) Simon Flanagan, senior consultant, food safety at Reading Scientific Services (RSSL), said that 'may contains' labels were tricky for food firms to manage.
He added that in the absence of EU-wide 'acceptable limits' for food allergens, companies felt obliged to use such labels when there was the "slightest, negigible risk of contamination".
Another problem, Flanaghan said, was differing labelling regulations, which made it difficult for food manufacturers to decide upon a consistent approach to allergens.
For instance, Japan requires mandatory labelling of only five allergens compared to the EU's 14, while even within Europe retailers apply different standards that manufacturers must adhere to.
The Surrey researchers also found that food labels and previous experience of the product affected purchase strategies, with brand name and supermarket important ‘rules of thumb’ for participants considering whether to eat a product or not.
The study showed that consumers trusted labelling from certain food companies over that of others, because of assumptions about company policies and product quality.