Warning on ‘Hidden’ Food Allergens

Key Takeaways:

  • Undeclared food allergens are a major cause for food recalls, as they carry serious health implications. The FDA mandates clear identification of all main allergens on food packaging.
  • The FDA is investigating causes of undocumented allergens on labels and is working closely with the food industry to enhance testing for undisclosed allergens.
  • Consumers have a role in this matter and are encouraged by FDA officials to report any allergic reactions, aiding in identifying the most affected foods, common allergens, and how labelling errors might occur.
  • Recall data reveals that milk, wheat, and soy allergens were most commonly linked to recalls. Items most frequently involved were bakery goods, snack foods, candies, dairy products, and sauces or dressings.
  • The FDA believes the number of recalls can be reduced through increased awareness about food allergens and improvements in food packaging, labelling, and ingredient management.

Accuracy of food labeling and the sometimes hidden presence of allergens is a grave concern highlighted by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Not all food allergens may be reliably detailed on product labels, which could have serious, even life-threatening implications for those with food allergies.

Undeclared Allergens and Legal Repercussions

The issue of “underground allergens”, unrecognized and unannounced on food labels, has been the primary cause leading to FDA-enforced food recalls. Legally, any food product marketed in the United States is bound by the obligation to clearly identify all chief food allergens. These include milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. This labeling mandate directly correlates to averting potentially lethal allergic reactions.

The FDA holds the authority to seize any food products whose packaging falls short of this allergen declaration. Nevertheless, most food manufacturers tend to voluntarily recall their products which do not meet these label requirements.

The Role of FDA

In a bid to prevent such recalls, the FDA has launched an investigation into why certain allergens might be overlooked on food labels. In parallel, the FDA is collaborating with the food industry to bolster testing for the presence of possible undisclosed allergens.

The Power of Reporting

Consumers have a part to play in this battle against hidden allergens as well. Steven Gendel, FDA food allergen coordinator, urges consumers to report any allergic reactions to food to their local FDA consumer complaint coordinator. “We scrutinize every complaint to plot the right course of action” he explained. Understanding which foods are most affected, which allergens are most often implicated, and how labeling errors might have occurred can help drive down the number of recalls for undeclared allergens.

Findings from Recall Data

Poring over recall data, the FDA has spotlighted several trends:

  • From September 2009 to September 2012, approximately a third of all foods flagged as severe health risks involved allergens that were missing from food labels. Bakery items, snack foods, candies, dairy products, and dressings or sauces were the most frequently involved.
  • Milk, wheat and soy allergens were the most common culprits in these recalls.
  • Several recalls featured candy prepared with dark chocolate harboring undeclared milk. Even though the packaging stated that these chocolate-coated snack bars were “dairy-free” or “vegan,” they represented a significant risk to milk-allergic consumers.
  • ‘Wrong label errors’ tend to occur with the sale of similar products in similar packages, each containing different ingredients, including allergens.

Preventing Future Recalls & Allergic Reactions

Based on these insights, the FDA is of the opinion that the number of food allergen recalls can be decreased by boosting awareness about food allergens and refining the way food packages, labels, and ingredients are managed.

The FDA prompts consumers to educate themselves about recalled products on the FDA’s webpage, the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website, and directly from food manufacturers.

More Information

For additional guidance on how to arm yourself against food allergies, feel free to visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website.

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