food insight


Jul. 20 2019 - 4 min

The global incidence of food allergies is skyrocketing. Food product recalls due to mislabeled allergens nearly doubled in the US since 2009, and peaked in 2015. We look at the emerging public health crisis posed by food allergies and the critical role laboratory testing and certification has to play.

Food allergies: a growing public health threat

Food allergies are emerging as a serious public health issue. Children are more likely than ever before to develop food allergies. The frequency of allergies notably increased over the last 30 years, with between 7% and 9% of US, UK and Australian children affected. In the UK, peanut allergies grew five-fold from 2005 to 20161.

When an allergic reaction occurs, the body’s immune system is responding negatively to certain food proteins. These substances, known as allergens, would otherwise be innocuous. Eight foods considered “major food allergens” are responsible for 90% of allergic reactions. These include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy2.

For allergic people, the result of consuming a trigger food may be hives, dizziness, swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, or even death. There is no cure, so allergic individuals are left with only one option—to strictly avoid the offending allergens. This involves carefully scanning ingredient lists and food labels of every prepackaged food. These people not only rely on accuracy and transparency in food labeling—their lives depend on it.

The rise of mandatory food allergen labeling

To better protect consumers, countries around the globe have enacted labeling laws for common food allergens. In 1938, the US enacted the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, requiring food products to be labeled with ingredient lists. The first of its kind, it failed to provide adequate protection and remained unchanged for 70 years3. Canada began regulating prepackaged foods containing allergens in 1994, followed by the EU in 2003. In 2004, the USDA’s Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act required special warnings on prepackaged foods containing certain allergens.

International labeling laws are far from consistent. Some countries recognize only eight major allergens, while others recognize up to 27. Sesame, the ninth most common allergen among adults, is not included on the list of regulated allergens in the US. Sesame could be hidden within “natural flavors” or “spices,” meaning that American food labels simply can’t be trusted by anyone who has a sesame allergy.

To make matters more complicated, many countries, including the US, do not regulate labeling of potential cross contact between foods prepared within the same facility. Manufacturers have developed their own precautionary labeling such as “May contain peanuts” or “Made in a facility that processes peanuts,” but these labels are unregulated and inconsistent4.

Theories abound as to why the allergy problem is advancing so rapidly. Some evidence points to environmental factors related to Western life. One theory is that improved hygiene has resulted in fewer parasitic infections, so the immune system is left to fight off harmless substances instead. Another factor is Vitamin D, which helps develop an appropriate immune response, yet deficiency is rampant5. And recently, US guidelines were updated after a study showed an 80% reduction in peanut allergies in 5-year-olds who were fed peanuts during their first year of life6.


Cross-contamination and inaccurate labeling: mistakes can be costly

Even trace amounts of trigger foods can be deadly. Under UK law, shops are not required to label food produced and sold on site. A London teenager, died after eating a baguette containing sesame from a popular chain restaurant in 2016. Less than two years later, it emerged that a 42-year-old died after eating a flatbread with yogurt that was supposed to be dairy free7.

These and other high-profile fatalities caused by allergen contamination are leading to growing calls for more comprehensive allergen and ingredient labeling8. Given the global supply chain of food, scientists and medical professionals are calling for a standardized international framework.

When foods contain one of the regulated allergens, but lack the correct label, the result is costly recalls of prepackaged foods. Mislabeling accounted for one third of all FDA recalls in 2018. The potential cost of recalls and damage to a company’s reputation are strong drivers to adopt a strict allergen management program.

Food allergen laboratory testing

Bureau Veritas works with companies to provide exactly that kind of approach. Precise, reliable food allergen testing is absolutely critical to meet food labeling requirements and ensure customers’ safety.

Bureau Veritas offers comprehensive food testing services for players along the entire food supply chain. Using highly precise microbiological techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA), Bureau Veritas food testing can determine the presence of gluten, nuts, soy, milk, fish, eggs, Sulphur dioxide and sulphites, crustraceans and other allergens, even at very low levels. Reliable testing with Bureau Veritas enables food industry players to assure that their food labels are accurate and compliant with regulatory requirements. This boosts market access and customer satisfaction, and prevents product recalls.