Allergy prevention: consumer perspectives


  • D. Reading


Consumer concerns about allergy have increased considerably in the last decade. Peanut allergy in particular has generated panic among many families, and there is often a misconception that children affected are unlikely to reach adulthood. Patientsupport organizations offer essential advice and guidance to these people, with a great deal of effort directed towards allergen avoidance. The Anaphylaxis Campaign receives approximately 20,000 enquiries annually - the vast majority being people seeking information about food allergy - and every year sends out 140,000 information sheets. Its website ( attracts 4,000 visits per day. Allergen avoidance is difficult enough for the person with access to high-quality information, but much harder for those with none. Allergens sometimes turn up unexpectedly in pre-packed food or they may not be presented in common everyday language. The presence of the 25 per cent rule governing compound ingredients offers further potential hazards. The answer is better education for consumers and a commitment by the food industry to listen to the allergic consumer’s voice. The presence of allergen traces, caused by factory cross-contact, also poses hazards. In the UK many food labels now carry the warning "may contain nut traces". These appear so frequently and sometimes so inexplicably (e.g. on bags of green salad) that the public has become sceptical about the reason for their use. Many nutallergic people ignore 'may contain' warnings, believing that the manufacturer or retailer is simply "covering its back". Sometimes these warnings signify a genuine risk. The Anaphylaxis Campaign urges manufacturers to explore ways of eliminating or minimizing this risk, thus negating the need for 'may contain' labels. Although most allergic reactions are triggered by a small number of foods (now subject to a recently-published EU Directive) we must remain watchful for new, emerging allergens. In the UK, novel foods are subject to scientific investigation by the Government’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). The ACNFP does not resist the approval of new foods simply because they may be allergenic. After all, any food containing protein may cause reactions for someone, somewhere. The key issue is whether the food will constitute a problem as a result of ‘cross-reactivity’ with another known allergen. Many manufacturers appear unclear on this issue and seem to be trying to demonstrate that their proposed new products are totally non-allergenic. If they contain protein, this is highly improbable. Finally there is the important issue of sensitization. How can we minimize the likelihood of children becoming allergic in the first place? What is the role of maternal diet during pregnancy and lactation? At what age may allergenic foods be safely introduced into a child’s diet? These are questions that can only be answered by scientific research. The Anaphylaxis Campaign has plans during 2005 to set up a research programme that, we hope, will make an important contribution to the understanding of food allergy.