Advisory labels confusing, says research, advocacy group

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New research published in Food and Chemical Toxicology shows that consumers find the allergy labels on foods to be confusing and possibly dangerous.

Most of the problems lie in the "may contain" labeling often used by manufacturers with have facilities that process foods containing allergens and some foods that do not. This protects them, legally, against cross-contamination within the plant.

"Consumers should avoid all products with advisory labels if they wish to avoid risk," says Steve Taylor, an author of the study and co-director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Testing peanut levels

Researchers set out to specifically test peanut levels in various foods with labels that warned that they "may contain" peanuts. Sixteen of the 186 products tested had detectable levels of peanut, which coincided with other, similar studies. This means about 9 percent of food with "may contain" labels actually do contain the specific allergen.

The study continues by showing that the type of food (instant nutrition bars or cereal versus frozen desserts or meals) affects whether a food "may contain" a specific allergen. Worse, however, some products without warning labels did contain peanut. However, those labeled "peanut-free" were all peanut-free as advertised.

A 'hazardous practice'

Another survey found that many consumers find the labels confusing, as many individuals are unable to decipher the risk levels of each product. In fact, these levels are essentially meaningless, as the FDA does not actually require specific labeling. Standards require labels like "may contain" and "made in a facility containing," but both are just as likely to contain the allergen.

"This is definitely a hazardous practice," notes Taylor of FARRP, noting that advisory labels are completely voluntary. "While labeling of the Top 8 allergens (Top 11 in Canada) is required if any of them is in an ingredient of a product, advisory labels for unintended inclusion of an allergen (this can occur in processing) remains voluntary. There are no rules governing when a manufacturer must include an advisory label, or which words to use."

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