August 26, 2008
Allergy Warnings Cause Consumer Confusion
Life with food allergies comes with many frustrations. Sifting through the hodgepodge of allergy warnings on food labels shouldn't be one of them.
Today allergy warnings on labels are voluntary. Consumers don't often know if the food they are purchasing contains ingredients that they could be allergic too. When warnings do appear they're often vague.
Health officials in the U.S. and Canada are now discussing possible standards for fear that some consumers will start ignoring warnings because of confusion.
"Really, the safest thing you can do is make all your food at home from scratch, period," says Margaret Sova McCabe, whose 8-year-old son is allergic to peanuts, dairy, wheat and five other ingredients.
McCabe doesn't find that to be practical and has found many longtime favorite foods bearing new warnings about contamination.
"Sometimes we buy the product anyway, and sometimes we don't," says McCabe.
McCabe, who is a law professor, questions how often the warnings signal liability protection rather than true risk.
"What does this really mean? Can I count on it, as a consumer, to really have any meaning?" she asks.
On Sept. 16 the Food and Drug Administration will ask those same questions at a public hearing. It's the first step toward creating a long-term strategy for food allergy warnings.
The FDA acknowledged that "advisory labeling may not be protecting the health of allergic consumers."
Authorities in Canada went a step further saying accidental-allergy warnings are misleading to consumers. They are asking food makers to begin clarifying the warnings even before a formal policy has been developed.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America recognized the confusion and has been working toward setting new guidelines for more than a year.
Twelve million Americans suffer from food allergies. Food allergies account for 30,000 emergency-room visits, and nearly 200 deaths a year.
In 2006, the U.S. passed a law requiring foods with highly allergenic ingredients to have a plain language warning.
The law did not cover accidental-allergy warnings, such as foods contaminated by being processed in the same factories as highly allergenic foods. The FDA reported that nearly a quarter of inspected food factories could potentially have cross-contamination.
There are also worries over how warnings are being worded. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, an influential consumer group, has counted at least 30 different ways that warnings are worded. Consumers often assume one food is riskier than other because of the way the warning is worded.
In 2006, the group surveyed parents of food-allergic children. Of those surveyed, 75 percent said they would never buy a food with accidental-allergy warnings, down from 85 percent in 2003.
The FDA's survey showed that most consumers only pay attention to "may contain" allergen warnings.
A University of Nebraska study showed that products with "accidental-allergy" warnings were more likely to contain the allergen than those with the "may contain" warning.
Health Canada researchers also found that some foods with "traces" of peanuts actually contained more than six-times the amount the government considers trace level.
Puzzling warnings are also contributing to consumer mistrust. Last week, allergy network founder Anne Munoz-Furlong was surprised to receive a basket of fresh fruit with a warning that it could contain nuts or milk.
"Right now everybody's making up their own rules," Munoz-Furlong said. She's pushing the FDA to set clear standards that will help consumers understand which foods to they need to avoid.
The Canadian government is currently recommending that foods bear one of two labels: "May contain X allergen" or "Not suitable for consumption by persons with an allergy to X."
On The Net:
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network
University of Nebraska