Efficacy of precautionary allergen labeling on foods
Published Online: March 15, 2012
Precautionary statements advise consumers that a priority allergen might be inadvertently present in a food even though it is not listed as an ingredient. There is little research on whether precautionary statements actually deter allergic consumers or those who are indirectly affected by food allergy from purchasing foods.
In a study published in this issue of The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI), Ben-Shoshan et al describe the effects of precautionary statements on the purchasing habits of Canadian consumers directly and indirectly affected by food allergy. Directly affected households refer to homes where at least one individual self-reports an allergy to peanut, tree nut, or sesame. Directly affected households were recruited from three sources: 1) A random sample of the Canadian population; 2) An existing database of children with peanut allergy; and 3) Canadian food allergy advocacy associations. Indirectly affected households refer to homes where there are no allergic individuals, but someone in the home purchases or prepares food for an allergic individual outside of the household. Indirectly affected households were recruited from a random sample of the Canadian population. Participants were queried on their likelihood of not purchasing a food in response to several precautionary statements through either a phone interview or a mailed questionnaire.
Precautionary statements varied considerably in their effectiveness in deterring consumer purchasing with the statement “not suitable for” resulting in more than 80% of consumers not purchasing the food. However, the precautionary statement “packaged in a facility that also packages products containing [allergen]” deterred purchasing in only 40% of directly affected from the general population, in 76% from the database of children with peanut allergy and advocacy groups, and in 73% of the indirectly affected. The directly affected from peanut allergy registry or the allergy advocacy associations and the indirectly affected were similarly vigilant; both were more vigilant than the directly affected randomly sampled from the general population.
Our results suggest that when certain noncommittal precautionary statements are used, they are often ignored by consumers. Policies promoting use of fewer variations of precautionary statements and use only when the risk of contamination is unavoidable should be promoted. All individuals with food allergies, particularly those who are not members of allergy advocacy groups, must be made aware of the importance of meticulous avoidance of the offending allergen.
The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI) is the official scientific journal of the AAAAI, and is the most-cited journal in the field of allergy and clinical immunology.