The Food Industry and the Allergic Consumer
by Mary Allen, AAIA CEO
When the AAIA was founded in 1964 there was little ingredient labelling. In the sixties there were more stay-at-home mothers who took charge of the shopping and cooking. The average Canadian diet was simpler, with fewer choices. Over the past 40 years much has changed. Ingredient labelling is well established. While there are still some gaps and some concerns, today's consumer has a great deal more information and much more choice. However, it does take time to make sense of this abundance of information and new products - but today time is often in short supply as busy consumers juggle careers and family life. We now rely more and more on processed foods. We also eat a wider variety of foods and more restaurant meals. Moreover, our children are increasingly eating under the supervision of caregivers at home, at daycare and at after-school programs.
Coping with a food allergy is particularly stressful in the months following a diagnosis when the patient and family has to deal with changes in lifestyle - taking more time to shop, learning to understand and read food labels, explaining the allergy and educating others. We know that the allergic consumer must be vigilant 100% of the time. Deciphering food labels and assessing risk are complex tasks and labels may still not provide enough information to those dealing with common allergies such as milk or egg. While this will be addressed by the proposed new regulations for the top ten priority allergens, there will likely always be some gaps.
Today, one of the biggest issues for consumers is the increasing use of precautionary warnings, which come in a wide variety of formats, most starting with “May contain...” Many of our members appreciate being offered this information but often do not know how to interpret some warnings, especially if they perceive them as being used on products with low risk. Manufacturers assume that the warning will keep allergic consumers away from the product but we know that some consumers routinely ignore the warnings, in the belief that the warning is being used mainly for legal reasons. Such consumers are putting themselves at risk since it is very difficult for a lay person to accurately assess the degree of risk. The AAIA believes that we need voluntary standards and criteria to ensure that precautionary warnings are more consistent, relevant and used for real risks. Allergy associations and government have formed a committee to examine this issue.
The growing use of allergen claims and symbols is also of concern. Some products have a positive claim while others have a negative claim - e.g. contains milk versus no milk. Many companies are developing their own logos or symbols for products aimed at the allergic market. There is a risk that consumers could be confused. If the symbols are very small, the positive warning could be mistaken for the negative one. There is also the worry that consumers will go by the claims and fail to read the detailed ingredient label. Here again, it would be helpful to have voluntary standards to ensure a consistent approach. The Association québécoise des allergies alimentaires’ (AQAA) new certification program www.certification-allergies.com is available to assist manufacturers in this regard.
Brand consistency could become an issue. When the same brand name is used on a variety of versions of a particular brand, some with the allergen, others without the allergen and still others with a may contain warning, there is a risk that the consumer will err. We know that food allergic consumers are particularly brand loyal and that they often think of brands as being homogeneous. While differentiation of the packaging on products now on the market is often very effective, some consumers simply decide that product is no longer okay for them because of the fear that their child or caregiver will confuse one version for another. We constantly remind our members to think in terms of “brand formats” rather than brands but it is a difficult message to get across to the general public. We hope that companies that venture down this path in future, will be aware of the need for very clear labelling.
Marketing messages must be responsibly formulated; short run market share should not be the only criteria when serving the allergy market. As always, it is important to keep allergy info in an easy-to-read and easy-to-find format, on the outside packaging as well as individual packaging.
Allergen avoidance is a shared responsibility among consumers, manufacturers, retailers and food servers. Dialogue and ongoing education are crucially important in this complex and rapidly changing food industry. As is so often the case, in allergy and in life, prevention is key. Dialogue and cooperation have brought much progress in the past four decades and we look forward to collaborating in future, to enhance both safety and product availability. We owe much thanks to the many individuals and groups, including government and food industry officials, who worked tirelessly for many years to improve safety and raise awareness.
The issues faced by today's allergic consumers were summarized in a recent article in CANADIAN FOODSAFETY MANAGEMENT. This magazine is the first and only Canadian trade publication dedicated exclusively to the Canadian food safety industry. It is a quarterly publication designed for a wide variety of people working in the food industry, dealing with all aspects of food safety. www.foodsafetymanagement.com
from Allergy & Asthma News, Issue 4 2006