Food label regulation in spotlight again

Matt Woodley

24/06/2020 4:41:45 PM

Researchers say incorrect labelling is causing too many allergic reactions and have called for tighter regulation.

Food label showing ingredients.
Packaging errors accounted for 56% of undeclared allergen recalls in Australia between 2016 and 2018.

Australia has the highest food allergy rates in the world, but despite the risk of potentially deadly allergic reactions new research suggests preventable packaging errors were responsible for more than half of all food recalls from 2016–2018.
Using Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) data, University of Melbourne’s Dr Giovanni Zurzolo showed previous assumptions regarding the main cause of food recall in Australia were inaccurate. Previously, it was believed cross-contact, where something went wrong in the supply chain such as nut traces finding their way into chocolate, was the main cause.
‘Our current results suggest that in Australia, packaging errors are a leading cause of food recalls due to presence of undeclared food allergens, not allergen cross-contact,’ Dr Zurzolo said.
‘This finding may also explain the relatively high prevalence of consumer reported anaphylaxis to processed food, as we have previously reported.’
Fear of allergens in Australia has reached the point where concerned parents are parking outside of hospitals and GP clinics in an effort to mitigate risk when giving their children peanuts or eggs for the first time.
Yet, Dr Zurzolo’s paper is not the first to reveal issues in relation to food labelling in Australia.
Late last year, a James Cook University study found nearly half of packaged food items bought from Asian grocery stores contained potentially deadly undeclared ingredients, while a 2018 survey of 864 Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia members revealed 58 respondents (6.7%) had reported anaphylactic reactions to a packaged food where the suspected allergen was not a listed ingredient.
 FSANZ conducted 675 food recalls between 2009 and 2018, with undeclared allergens (39%), microbial contamination – such as yeast or bacteria – (26%), and foreign matter (16%) accounting for most recalls.
However, it only began tracking the cause of undeclared allergen recalls from mid-2016.
Since then, packaging errors where the food product was either packed into incorrect packaging or was incorrectly labelled accounted for 56% of recalls (up to 2018), whereas supplier verification issues (16%) and cross-contact (10%) were much less common.
Dr Zurzolo said this discrepancy demonstrates the importance of ensuring better packaging procedures.
‘There is a need for improved packaging practices to minimise foods with undeclared allergens and increase food safety for food allergic consumers,’ Dr Zurzolo said.
While ingredient labels are regulated in Australia, precautionary labelling is optional and Dr Zurzolo said as the data only covered reported incidents, the actual incidence could be higher.
As a result, he said some consumers are facing unnecessary risks, especially when combined with the fact that some allergen statements can be confusing.
‘We have called upon industry and governments to have one risk-assessment process that all manufacturers must adhere to,’ Dr Zurzolo said. ‘That would help reduce the chances of these adverse reactions.
‘Government auditing of manufacturers should be more prevalent … currently we are unsure of what process is being used by the majority of manufactures.
‘Hopefully, this identification will help industry to reduce the problem.’
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