Why unlabeled allergens pose the biggest recall risks
The unintentional presence of food allergens is a major cause of product recalls, accounting for 30% of recalls in 2009 and 47% in 2014, Food Safety News reports.
Last year, 34 of the 122 food recalls managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture were due to undeclared allergens — more than those caused by E. coli, salmonella and listeria put together.
There are about 30,000 hospitalizations each year in the United States because of food allergies, and about 150 to 200 people die, according to Food and Drug Administration figures.
Food companies are required to highlight eight major allergens on product labels: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. These allergens cause about 90% of food-related allergic reactions in the United States.
Apart from the serious danger to at-risk consumers, a product recall is a major problem for a manufacturer, requiring the unraveling of often complex food supply networks. Prevention of food allergen contamination should involve equipment cleaning, process controls, separation of processing lines that deal with allergens, label reviews and employee training.
Even after taking best practices into account, food companies increasingly use "may contain" labels to warn consumers of potential cross-contamination. However, there are fears that consumers may become desensitized to these warnings because their use is so widespread.
Consumers should not ignore these labels, as products carrying them are significantly more likely to contain allergens, according to a recent study. The researchers found that foods from smaller companies were more likely to be contaminated with allergens than those from larger firms, whether they were labeled or not.
- Food Safety News Undeclared allergens a leading cause of food recalls in U.S.