Ambiguous labeling of food products causes allergic reactions

18 Jun 2018

People with a food allergy regularly have an allergic reaction because of unclear labeling. In a recent study by the University Medical Center Utrecht and The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research TNO, 157 people with a food allergy were followed for one year and nearly half (46%) of the participants experienced one or more unexpected allergic reactions due to unclear or incomplete warnings. An allergic reaction can vary from mild symptoms like itchy eyes or can escalate to life threatening reactions such as swelling of the throat or effects on the lungs and heart.  Six of the study participants required a visit to the emergency department for further treatment due to an accidental allergic reaction.

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Patients followed for one year

During the study, participants who experienced an accidental allergic reaction were asked to report this reaction and send in a sample of the culprit product for analysis by TNO and the UMC Utrecht. From the analysis it appeared that half of the products without an allergen warning on the label contained allergens like milk, egg, peanut or hazelnut. Sometimes a single product could contain up to 4 different undeclared allergens. For products with a precautionary allergen warning the allergens listed in the warning did often not match the allergens actually detected in the product.


“There are half a million people in our country suffering from a food allergy. We followed 157 people and 6 of them needed an emergency treatment at the hospital,” says TNO investigator Marty Blom. “This research shows for the first time that the ambiguous allergen labeling leads to a large number of allergic reactions. If there is no precautionary warning on the product this is no guarantee of absence of an allergen. And the other way around, allergens warned for often are not present. People do not know what to do and regularly ignore the precautionary statement because they do not value the warning.”

The study participants reacted most frequently when consuming chocolates and bakery products such as bread and cookies, but allergic reactions were also reported due to consumption of soup, ice cream or meat products. Unexpected reactions were frequently reported to prepacked foods (41%). This study found that most products (73%) had an allergen present for which there was no warning.

Better regulation

The investigators would like to see implementation of better precautionary allergen labeling guidance or regulation to the benefit of the allergic consumer. In Europe there are approximately 22 million allergic individuals, ~3 percent of the European population. According to TNO Principle Scientist and UMC Utrecht professor Geert Houben, “Producers and regulators should take responsibility and take care of a good advice on allergens. For that we should have a correct European regulation on precautionary labeling to guide on when and when not to warn for this problem. In Australia and New-Zealand such a guidance exists. Unfortunately, in Europe there is no priority which leads to placing people with a food allergy daily for unnecessary risks. Of the 157 people we followed, 6 ended up into the emergency department, what would this mean at an European scale, with 22 million food allergic individuals?”

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