A growing number of the 12 million Americans with food allergies are ignoring widespread food-label warnings about the possible unintentional presence of allergens, putting them at increased risk for a potentially serious reaction, a new study suggests.
The label warnings, known as "advisory labeling," are intended to inform consumers that the products could unintentionally include an allergen (e.g., peanuts), and include such statements as "may contain [allergen]," "manufactured on shared equipment with [allergen]," and "manufactured in the same facility with [allergen]."
Advisory labeling, which has become increasingly common, is voluntary rather than mandatory, and is not regulated. People with food allergies depend upon food labels to determine food safety, as even a small amount of an allergen could cause a serious allergic reaction.
The new study, reported in the July issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, attempted to determine whether food-allergic consumers heed advisory labels, and whether products with such labeling contain detectable amounts of allergen. The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), and the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
Two separate groups of attendees at FAAN seminars for parents of children with food allergies were surveyed: one group in 2003 (625 parents), and the other in 2006 (645 parents). Parents were asked whether they heeded advisory labeling on products containing food allergens.
The results of the survey showed a disturbing trend: 85 percent of the parents surveyed in 2003 heeded the advisory warnings, while in 2006 the rate dropped to 75 percent. In addition, parents ignored the advisories to differing degrees, depending on the wording.
For example, 88 percent heeded items labeled "May contain [allergen]," compared with only 65 percent who would not use products labeled "Made in a facility that uses [allergen]." Yet when food products bearing advisory statements for the presence of peanut, a common allergen, were analyzed, it was found that the wording used to warn consumers did not correlate with frequency or amount of peanut detected. In fact, peanut was found in more products and at higher levels in items with "shared facilities" in the advisory label than with other wording.
Overall, seven percent (13 of 179 products tested) had detectable levels of peanut - in amounts that, in some cases, could cause allergic reactions.
"We believe that allergic consumers are increasingly ignoring the advisory labeling because the warnings are now used so frequently that consumers assume they are not serious," said study co-author Scott Sicherer, M.D., of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute. "Our study shows that there truly is a risk, that the particular words used in warnings do not reflect the degree of danger, and not heeding those warnings is tantamount to playing a hazardous game of allergy roulette with food."
"Advisory labels are well-meaning, but their increasing use and the wide range of terminology are confusing and often misleading for consumers," said FAAN CEO and founder Anne MuÃ¯Â¿Â½oz-Furlong. "Industry, government regulators, and food-allergic consumers must partner to determine the best course of action to ensure that food is free from unintended allergens and to improve advisory label use."
Founded in 1991, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) is the world leader in information about food allergy, a potentially fatal condition that afflicts approximately 12 million Americans, or one out of every 25, and is rapidly increasing in prevalence.
A nonprofit organization based in Fairfax, Va., FAAN has 30,000 members in the U.S., Canada, and 62 other countries. It is dedicated to increasing public awareness of food allergy and its consequences, to educating people about the condition, to advocating on behalf of all those affected by it, and to advancing research into its causes, prevalence, cure, and prevention.
FAAN provides information and educational resources about food allergy to patients, their families, schools, health professionals, pharmaceutical companies, the food industry, and government officials.
The FAAN Medical Advisory Board, which reviews all of the organization's educational materials, is comprised of 14 of the leaders in food allergy science and medicine in the U.S. and Canada.
In addition to its printed materials, FAAN also sponsors such awareness programs as Food Allergy Awareness Week, the Mariel C. Furlong Awards for Making a Difference, food allergy conferences, and fundraising walks.
For more information, visit FAAN on the Web at www.foodallergy.org.