The food industry has a significant role to play to protect the consumer from allergic reactions. Some may believe this has already been accomplished with the U.S. Food Labeling and Consumer Protection Act that requires food manufacturers and processors to identify major allergens. These include wheat, eggs, milk, peanuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and tree nuts.
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However, what if a consumer purchases food items that contain ingredients other than those mentioned? Does that mean they are safe from allergic reactions? Not necessarily.
Manufacturers may voluntary place a cautionary statement on a food product label that the food item “may contain” a specific allergen, was “manufactured in a facility” that produces foods containing certain allergens, or was manufactured or processed on “shared equipment” with foods containing allergens. According to a November 2016 study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, these cautionary terms cause a lot of confusion for consumers. As many as 40 percent of the 6,600 consumers surveyed who either have a known food allergy, have a child with an allergy, or care for a child who has a food allergy are still purchasing foods that might cause an allergic reaction even with these cautions printed on the label.
The study found the most misunderstood food labels are those that say “may contain” or are “manufactured on shared equipment.” Nearly half of the respondents believed these statements were required by law, which they are not, and a third thought they were based on amounts of an allergen, which is also not true. Whatever the belief or thinking, the study concluded that many consumers don’t take them seriously enough to not purchase a food item.
Eliminating the Confusion
This is an opportunity for the food industry to take its own steps to end this confusion, help prevent allergic reactions to foods, and keep consumers healthy. To do this, more advanced menu management systems are needed that are designed to not only accurately detect whether allergens are present in foods, but to also evaluate more than 120 other nutritional metrics and claims, such as fat content, calories, vitamins, sodium, sugar, and gluten.
Menu management systems are designed to help food service providers create and manage food recipes. They do this by analyzing the ingredients and the nutrients in the recipes. While variations of menu management systems have been around for about 20 years, the newer and more advanced systems take things several steps further.
Cloud-based systems allow new food regulations or recipe changes that are impacting a chain of restaurants or food producing facilities to be communicated to all locations simultaneously. Further, the corresponding labels for these food items can be changed at the same time.
More advanced systems can also help recipe managers reformulate recipes to eliminate foods and food ingredients that might contain allergens or adjust salt, sugar, or fat content with changes reflected on the label. Determining serving portion costs and suggesting portion pricing is also possible.
In much of North America today, we are in what could be called a “deregulatory” environment. This does not mean that industries no longer need to be concerned about specific regulations they were required to follow in the past. Instead, it means industry has been handed an opportunity; the food industry can take steps on its own, independent of government measures, to ensure American consumers are clear about what is in the foods they select and which allergens may be present, as well as all the other nutritional information.
While some industry regulations may be passé, when it comes to food allergens and the food prepared for consumers, transparency is here to stay.