EU: undeclared allergens on food labels put allergic children at risk

A recent analysis shows remarkable levels of undeclared allergens on food labels. Avoiding allergic food is the mainstay of management since there is no curative treatment for food allergies. Therefore, mislabeling allergens on food packaging can pose a significant risk for allergic patients.  

The study investigates the presence of allergens in food that are not declared on the product labels using allergen-related notifications data published on the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) portal.  Between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2021, a total of 844 food-allergen-related notifications were made by the RASFF system.  

The results show that milk (20.5%), gluten (14.8%), and nuts (10.9%) are the allergens most often present without being declared on the product labels. These are known to be foods that frequently trigger allergic reactions in children. Plus, among the 27 food categories listed in the RASFF system, undeclared allergens are mainly found in cereals and bakery products (16.3%), prepared dishes and snacks (13.1%), and confectionery (9.0%), which are regularly consumed by children.  

The findings also point out that 16.6% of the samples contain two or more undeclared allergens, thereby potentially affecting people with different allergies. Remarkably, a large quantity of undeclared allergens is present in products that are labelled as “free-from-allergen” (7.6%).  

According to EU Regulation No. 1169/2011, it is mandatory that allergen information is always provided to consumers, including on non-prepackaged foods. The regulation specifies 14 substances or products causing allergies or intolerances. As for prepackaged foods, allergen information must be shown in the list of ingredients and should be highlighted to clearly stand out from the rest, for example, by typeface, style, or background color.  

However, despite the compulsory requirements, food labelling does not always adequately contain information about the allergens present, as the study conveys. The study suggests the need for increased efforts from manufacturers and safety authorities in protecting allergic patients, such as enforcing educational programmes to disseminate updates on potential, undeclared-allergen food products and food allergen alerts.