TUESDAY, Oct. 28, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Some food labels may not reliably list all possible food allergens, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The agency added that these "undeclared allergens" are the leading cause of FDA-requested food recalls.
Under federal law, foods marketed in the United States are required to identify all major food allergens -- such as milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans -- on product labels. This mandate is to prevent life-threatening allergic reactions, according to the FDA.
The FDA can seize any foods that do not contain this allergen information on their labels. Most food manufacturers, however, will recall their products voluntarily.
To prevent these recalls, the FDA said is it investigating why some possible allergens are omitted from food labels. The FDA is also working with the food industry to improve testing for the presence of possible allergens.
Consumers can help by reporting any allergic reactions to food to their local FDA consumer complaint coordinator, said Steven Gendel, FDA food allergen coordinator.
"We look at every complaint to determine the appropriate course of action," he said in an agency news release. "What we're trying to learn is what foods are most affected, what allergens are most involved, and how labeling errors might have happened. Those answers will help us to reduce the number of recalls for undeclared allergens."
In sorting through recall data, the FDA said it has already identified noticeable trends, such as:
- Between September 2009 and September 2012, roughly one-third of all foods reported as serious health risks involved allergens that were not included on food labels. Most often, the foods involved were bakery products, snack foods, candy, dairy products, and dressings or sauces.
- The allergens involved most frequently in recalls were milk, wheat and soy.
- Several recalls involved candy made with dark chocolate that contained undeclared milk. The FDA said these chocolate-coated snack bars had labels that indicated the products were "dairy-free" or "vegan." "This represented a significant risk for milk-allergic consumers," said Gendel.
- Labeling errors most often occur due to the use of the wrong label, the FDA found. This can happen when similar products are sold in similar packages, but contain different ingredients, including allergens.
Based on these findings, the FDA said the number of food allergen recalls can be reduced by increasing awareness about food allergens and improving the way food packages, labels and ingredients are handled.
The FDA advised consumers to learn about recalled products on the agency's website, the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website and from food manufacturers.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides more information on how to protect yourself from food allergies.
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