Food Standards Agency
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Research on allergy labelling use

New research, published today by the Food Standards Agency, provides insights on how people with life-threatening nut allergies use food labels when choosing what food to buy and eat. The research will be used to help produce clearer allergy information for consumers.

‘We urge food manufacturers and businesses to follow our best practice guidance when providing allergy information’

The study, carried out by the University of Surrey, involved participants being accompanied during a routine food shop and interviewed at length to find out what they were thinking when they chose each product.

The research found that when people were making choices about buying or eating a particular food:

  • The brand was important because participants trusted certain food companies more than others.
  • The allergy advice box was used by many as a reliable source of information, often instead of the ingredients list. Most participants did not know that this information was voluntary and some assumed incorrectly the absence of an allergy advice box meant the product did not contain any of the main food allergens and was safe for them to eat.
  • ‘May contain’ warnings, were not seen as credible or desirable and were sometimes ignored. The majority of participants felt that it was almost impossible to avoid eating products with ‘may contain’ labelling. These precautionary warnings are used by some food manufacturers to indicate possible cross-contamination with a food allergen.
  • When eating out, some people did not tell restaurant staff about their allergy because of social embarrassment and the fear it would further limit their choices. For some this led to increased risk-taking.

Sue Hattersley, head of food allergy at the FSA, said: 'This research shows the importance of clear allergy labelling on food products. Shopping for food can prove to be very difficult and time-consuming for people with food allergies and we urge food manufacturers and businesses to follow our best practice guidance when providing allergy information. This can make simple everyday tasks such as food shopping or eating out a safer, less stressful and more pleasurable experience for people with food allergies.'

The results are being used to inform dietary advice to consumers with nut allergies and to steer the development of food allergy labelling policy.

The full study report and further information on the resources available to help food allergic consumers make safer food choices can be viewed at the links below.

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