Recently the government called for an inquiry into allergies and anaphylaxis. From reading the submissions and listening to the public hearings in Melbourne and Sydney, one thing is very clear. Food labels need to be improved because getting it wrong simply isn’t an option.
By law, the top 10 allergens must be labelled in Australia. These include milk, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, fish, soy, sesame, wheat and lupin. However, consumers aren’t always protected by this law. In 2018, over 46 food recalls happened because of undeclared allergens. How does this come about? Either a consumer has had a reaction from eating the foods and it’s recalled, or routine testing takes place. Some feel that eating anything from a packet is like playing Russian Roulette.
Link to statistics on food recalls – https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/industry/foodrecalls/recallstats/Pages/allergen-stats.aspx
Another issue is that tree nuts cover a range of nuts though they are only listed as tree nuts on labelling. A person may be able to eat a range of tree nuts and may just need to avoid, for example, just Brazil nuts. Due to vague labelling, many packaged foods are off the menu to them because of imprecise labelling.
Then there’s the issue with font size. Have you ever noticed how small the font is when you try and read the ingredients? Even those of us that don’t wear glasses may need a magnifying glass to see an ingredient list.
A simple fix would be to have a standardized font size that is legible. An interesting case of misleading or unnecessary font and wording is Aldi using Dairy Fine on some of their products. What does this even mean? There have been several consumers who have been caught out by this, reading it as dairy-free and have either purchased these products or consumed them. The font used by Aldi does make it difficult to read and a common term ‘dairy-free’ is frequently misread instead.
Dairy-fine term and font tricks people and is often misread
Link to dairy-fine news story
Some ingredient lists have allergen statements after the ingredients. Some list allergens in bold, and some don’t. Another simple fix would be to standardize labelling requiring all allergens to appear in bold in the ingredients list as well as on the allergen statement.
Packaging is another huge area of confusion. Brands can have similar packaging and consumers pick up what they think is their ‘Safe Food’ only to find it isn’t. Two years ago there was a very sad case when nine-year-old Isabel lost her life to anaphylaxis after consuming what her parents thought were ‘safe biscuits’ when in fact she was eating a biscuit containing her known allergen with almost identical packaging.
Link to news story
Take a look at how similar packaging can be and how easy it is to make a mistake – https://www.facebook.com/Myfoodallergyfriends/videos/322318978346016/
Fortunately, we also see brands doing labels really well such as Coles ‘Free From’ Range. These products have clear labelling on the front of their packets that is legible and also on their ingredients list.
Clear labelling in large font
Then there’s the ‘May Contain Statements’ which drive anyone with allergies slightly mad! This is a voluntary statement which seems to be slapped on many food products for the simple purpose of protecting the food producer. Some may choose to avoid food packing that has this statement on which drastically reduces the amount of food available to them. Ironically, there is just the same risk in the products that don’t have this voluntary statement.
We also have issues with bulk buys as the same food product may use different ingredients if you buy in bulk. The product contains the same food but smaller packets may have different ingredients.
Another area that causes many reactions is when companies change ingredients. Technically the company are not at fault if new ingredients are added to the label. Many families have found out the hard way when they pick up three products, read the first label checking it’s safe but don’t realise they have also picked up a different batch with the same packaging but new ingredients.
Food labels don’t need to be this confusing. A standardized system is urgently required with a large, clear font. Of course it goes without saying, READ the ingredients EVERY TIME, on EVERY single food you purchase.
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