Ingredients lists of common supermarket products – including ice creams and biscuits – are often not declaring food allergens, prompting calls for a crackdown on labelling to protect vulnerable consumers.
A Melbourne University survey revealed that in more than 60 per cent of cases where consumers suffered an allergic reaction to packaged food, the suspected allergen was not listed in the ingredients.
The most common foods found to have undeclared allergens – such as peanuts, other nuts, milk, eggs – were chocolates, ice cream, sweets and baked goods such as biscuits, cakes and cupcakes.
Food safety expert and lead author Dr Giovanni Zurzolo told The New Daily that the current food labelling system is a “nightmare” for every one in 10 people with allergies.
“It’s like a Russian roulette gamble at the moment – do I choose to eat this or not?” he said.
Allergic reactions to foods containing undeclared allergens are not rare.
“This research shows it’s happening much more frequently than it should.
“It’s actually illegal. It should not happen at all.”
Australian law requires companies to declare all potential allergens in ingredients lists. These include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, sesame seeds, fish, shellfish, soy, lupin and wheat.
Statements such as “may contain traces” or “may be present” found on many products are merely voluntary and are unregulated.
Food Standards Australia, which publishes alerts on national food recalls, most recently recalled Coles’ Big Yum beef pie due to an undeclared egg allergen, Deli Spice sesame biscuits (peanuts and gluten) and YouFoodz Paprika Chicken (fish, gluten, egg and milk).
There are, on average, more than 30 food recalls every year, according to Food Standards Australia.
Australia’s ‘life-threatening’ failures in allergen labelling
Five Australians have died from a severe allergic reaction after eating food that failed to specify allergens in the past eight years.
Ronak Warty, a 10-year-old boy, lost his life after drinking Green Time Natural Coconut Drink in 2013.
Despite the tragedy, it took six weeks before the product was recalled from shelves to protect other people with allergies.
More recently, 15-year-old Jack Irvine died days after eating a Subway cookie in 2016, which was later found to have contained macadamia nuts.
Allergic reactions can involve difficulty breathing, tongue swelling, throat swelling, difficulty talking, shortness of breath, persistent cough, and persistent dizziness or collapse.
“These reactions can be life-threatening,” Dr Zurzolo said.
“We are seeing an increase in food allergies, it’s becoming an epidemic.
“Regulators need to abolish precautionary labelling. It’s too confusing and misleading to consumers.
“We need to more robustly list ingredients – even traces – in bold on ingredients lists.”
Dr Raymond Mullins, who specialises in clinical immunology and allergy, said there are more than 5000 anaphylaxis – severe allergic reactions – hospital admissions in Australia every year.
“Issues surrounding food labelling and the risk of cross-contamination with allergens always causes problems,” he said.
“While it is important to read labels for known allergenic ingredients, individual should be aware that the biggest risk of having an accidental exposure to food allergen is eating away from home when there is no label to warn people about potential ingredients.”
Dr Robert Loblay, the director of the allergy unit at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in NSW, said he was not optimistic about improved regulation when it comes to food allergen labelling.
“We already had a big national review of food labelling in 2009,” he said.
“[I suggested that] rather than stating that a product ‘may contain traces of’ – or some variation of that – that manufacturers be required to label their product as ‘may be contaminated with’.”
“No manufacturer wants to have the word ‘contaminated’ on their label – it puts customers off and would impact their bottom line.
“I thought the 2009 review was too industry-friendly, so wasn’t surprised that none of my suggestions were taken up.”
A Department of Health spokesman said Health Minister Greg Hunt announced in August that the government would invest a further $2 million from 2019-20 to 2022-23 to support the implementation of the National Allergy Strategy towards improving clinical care and raising community awareness of allergies.