Most Consumers Find Food Allergen Labels Unclear

Most Consumers Find Food Allergen Labels Unclear

The UK is becoming more strict about how we label our food for consumers to signal potential allergens. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean that consumers are safer or more aware of which foods are safe for them to eat.

Are allergen labels clear enough?

Many allergen labels can be vague at best and misleading at worst. This is confusing and could have potentially deadly consequences. Terms like “may contain” and “traces of” often leave consumers confused about whether the product they want to buy is a risk to them or not. These vague labels also dilute the message that allergen labels are designed to deliver, making consumers take them less seriously.

Research suggests allergen labels aren’t working

A recent scientific study has shown that less than half of consumers find allergen information on labels to be clear. Most people do not fully understand the risks these labels are trying to convey.
The study, published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy, revealed the results from research involving two separate experiments regarding allergen awareness. The experiments involved 201 consumers split almost evenly between allergy sufferers and non-allergy sufferers.
The groups were shown 18 different food products with labels that suggested the allergen peanut either “was”, “may be” or “was not” an ingredient. They were presented with this information in three different formats – “produced in a factory that handles peanuts”, “may contain peanut” and “traces of peanut”. These labels are what is known as a precautionary allergen label (PAL).

What is a precautionary allergen label?

Precautionary allergen labels are not legally required in the UK for food manufacturers, but they are used extensively by food manufacturers. They are used to alert consumers to the fact that, while an allergen is not a deliberate ingredient in a product, small amounts could have inadvertently made it into the product.
Many manufacturers include PALs on their products as due diligence in protecting consumers from potentially harmful ingredients, but the lack of standardisation can be confusing. Labels that don’t follow standard EU PAL statements can be particularly problematic but even the standard “may contain” warning labels proved confusing for the research subjects.

Should allergen labels be more specific?

The research suggests that PALs including precautionary statements like “produced in a factory” are of little value. They can either lead to inappropriate dietary restrictions or, more dangerously, devalue and dilute the importance of other allergen statements and lead to risk-taking behaviours amongst allergen sufferers.
The lead author of the research, Bregje Holleman PhD, of Utrecht University in The Netherlands said:
“Many consumers interpret ‘Produced in a factory’ to reflect a weaker warning than ‘May contain’. From a communication perspective, it’s logical for consumers to attribute different risk levels to warnings worded differently. But since producers probably mean to communicate the exact same level of risk with each of these different warnings, we advise using only PAL wording.”

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PALs mean that although the allergen isn’t a deliberate ingredient in the product, the manufacturer won’t say with absolute certainty that traces of it are not present. Even Kinnerton, who was the first chocolate manufacturer to create a designated nut-free section of their factory, refuse to label their products as “nut-free”.
There is a cliched joke where a packet of peanuts is adorned with a warning label that it “may contain peanuts”, and this serves as a great example of how meaningless these labels can be. It should also serve as an example of how these labels dilute the importance of allergy labelling and can do more harm than good.
In the community, people often dismiss PALs as a cynical “posterior protection” exercise by food manufacturers; more about protecting the business from legal action than informing the consumer. To a certain extent, this is often the reality. As a result, many allergy sufferers actively ignore “may contain” labels, when the products do in fact pose a true risk to them.

Allergen labels get lost through the supply chain

The big problem with PALs is that if it isn’t a legal requirement for manufacturers to include them, it may be construed that it isn’t a legal requirement for restaurants and food outlets to take heed of them when using products in their food business.
If an ice cream vendor creates a sundae that uses some confectionary from a supplier that comes with a warning that it may contain nuts, they do not need to pass that warning onto their customers. The risk there is obvious.
Many restaurants are often overwhelmed by unregulated and inconsistent PAL labels and cannot reasonably inform their customers about allergen risks. As a result, they are sometimes ignored by restauranteurs when passing on their allergy advice and information to patrons.

Traces of allergens can kill

Even tiny traces of allergens can potentially be deadly to any of the 2 million allergen sufferers in the UK. Regulations can be clear as mud, but that doesn’t mean UK food businesses can relinquish responsibility for informing consumers about what is in their food.
Are you certain you are keeping your customers – and your business – as safe as possible? Contact us to find out more about how we can keep you up-to-date with your obligations towards allergen sufferers.