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Food Safety Focus (123rd Issue, October 2016) – Food Safety Platform

Understanding Food Labels – Food Allergens

Ms. Janny MA,, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section,
Centre for Food Safety

Most people can enjoy a wide range of food without any problem. However, specific foods or food ingredients may cause adverse reactions ranging from mild discomfort to severe, life-threatening reactions in a small proportion of “allergic” people.

Food allergy

Food allergy is a reaction of the body’s immune system to somesubstances or ingredients in food. A very low level of allergenic substance may cause allergy reaction in susceptible consumers. A local survey (2012) by the University of Hong Kong revealed that about 1 out of 20 children in Hong Kong was self-reported to have food allergy, with shellfish, egg, milk and peanut as common allergen s .

Symptoms of food allergy can include swelling of the face, tongue or lips, shortness of breath and itchiness. Anaphylactic shock, an acute, severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction may develop in severe cases.

Common Misconceptions

X I must be suffering from milk allergy as I have digestive symptoms after drinking milk

Fact: Lactose intolerance is often mistaken as milk allergy. Unlike milk allergy, lactose (milk sugar) intolerance is a digestive disorder due to the deficiency of lactase (an enzyme for digesting lactose) which is not an immune response. Milk allergy usually appears in the first year of life while lactose intolerance occurs more often during adolescence and adulthood.

X Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common cause of food allergy

Fact: Some people may consider themselves as sensitive to MSG and, over the years, there have been reports on cases of occurrence of mild and short-term symptoms (the symptom complex of headache, numbness/tingling in back of neck, flushing, muscle tightness and generalised weakness) after the consumption of MSG. Nevertheless, a number of international and national food safety authorities have evaluated the safety of MSG and concluded that available evidence has failed to demonstrate a causal relationship between the consumption of MSG and the development of this symptom complex.

Eight specific foods/ food ingredients causing food allergy that requirelabelling in prepackaged foods (a. cereals containing gluten (namely wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, their hybridized strains and their products), b. fish and fish products, c. eggs and egg products, d. peanuts, soyabeans and their products, e. crustacea and crustacean products, f. tree nuts and nut products, g. milk and milk products (includinglactose), h. sulphite in a concentration of 10 parts per million (mg/kg) or more
Eight specific foods/ food ingredients causing food allergy that requirelabelling in prepackaged foods (a. cereals containing gluten (namely wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, their hybridized strains and their products), b. fish and fish products, c. eggs and egg products, d. peanuts, soyabeans and their products, e. crustacea and crustacean products, f. tree nuts and nut products, g. milk and milk products (includinglactose), h. sulphite in a concentration of 10 parts per million (mg/kg) or more

Labelling for Food Allergens

Currently, there is no cure for food allergy. The only successful method to manage is avoidance of foods that contains the allergen. Food allergen information on food label is therefore an important tool for susceptible individuals to identify ingredients that they need to avoid.

Our local regulation is in line with international standards i.e. Codex standards that the eight specific foods/ food ingredients which cause the most severe reactions and most cases of food allergies must be clearly shown on the label of all prepacked foods when they, or any ingredients made from them are used.

Precautionary Warning Statements

Apart from mandatory label, manufacturers often use phrases such as “ may contain traces of XXX, “produced in a factory where XXX is also handled” to show that there could be small amounts of allergen(s) which may have entered the product inadvertently during the production process. For instance, recipe of Product A does not intentionally include peanuts but it is produced on the same premises as Product B that contains peanuts. Product A may eventually contain traces of peanut and may thus pose an allergen risk to consumers who are allergic to peanuts.

However, these precautionary warning statements should not be used to replace all reasonable precautions and all due diligence exercised by the trade to prevent cross-contamination of allergen(s). Unwarranted use of these statements can result in unnecessary elimination of food choice for allergic consumers and may also reduce the credibility of the trade, causing vulnerable consumers to take risks with these foods.

Advice to Individuals Suffered from Food Allergy or Their Care Takers

  • Read food allergen information on food labels to identify if any food orfood ingredients of your allergic concern are present in the food.
  • Eliminate the food or food ingredients, which you are allergic to, from the diet.
  • Download Food Safety app and/or e-News to get automatic notification of food allergy alerts issued by the Centre for Food Safety.

Advice to the Trade

  • Ensure food labels including allergen labels on prepackaged food comply with local regulatory requirements.
  • Practise due diligence in labelling the presence or potential presence of allergens in products, and preventing unintentional cross-contamination of products with allergens present in other manufactured products.
  • Use precautionary warning statements only after exercising all reasonable precautions and all due diligence.
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Last Revision Date : 19-10-2016