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Tests show allergy labelling not to be trusted

HOW well can you trust labels regarding food allergy? Not very much, if a recent audit of a sample of Irish bakeries, chocolate makers, convenience food, snack, meat and fish businesses are concerned.

Inspectors from the Food Safety Authority looked at 12 of these businesses and found allergen labelling was applied in an inconsistent and sometimes incorrect manner.

Allergic reactions are often mild, but they can sometimes be very serious.

Children tend to be allergic to milk and eggs while adults tend to react to fruits and vegetables.

Nut allergies in children and adults can be life-threatening.

The unannounced inspections of the food premises found:

• Two out of three businesses were found to apply allergen labelling inconsistently across product ranges, which could be confusing, if not misleading, to consumers.

• Ten of the 12 establishments were found to apply voluntary precautionary labelling. However, the use of precautionary labelling by five of these establishments was shown to be unjustified and thus inappropriate.

• Precautionary labels were sometimes applied to a food simply because a retail customer required it, even though the food posed a very low risk, if any, of containing the particular allergen.

• One-in-four of the establishments visited had a significant risk of cross-contamination by allergens.

• Staff training was found to be inconsistent and not carried out at all by some food businesses, with only two out of three providing some form of guidance for workers.

The report said in many cases, food businesses are using precautionary allergen labels such as 'may contain nuts' or 'produced in a factory that also uses nuts' as a substitute for adequate controls.

"This defensive action to use precautionary labels, where a very low risk or none exists, results in the unnecessary elimination of healthy dietary options. It could also mislead people into thinking it is safe to eat foods and take risks."

The food watchdog said it will work closely with the food industry to establish best practices for the management and control of food allergens in the manufacturing environment.

However, it said that ultimately the responsibility is with food businesses to ensure products are labelled appropriately and controls to manage allergens are in place.

The watchdog has an information leaflet on food allergies and intolerance which is available to download at www.fsai.ie/ resources_ publications.html

Health & Living