More than half of food recalls in the United Kingdom over a 5-year period were due to allergens, according to a recently released study.

Allergen-related recalls increased annually until 2019, peaking at 118 before decreasing to 82 and 84 in 2020 and 2021 respectively. The reduction was potential because of direct and indirect impacts of the COVID pandemic and improved labeling, said researchers.

Of 1,036 recalls in the UK from 2016 to 2021, published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS), 597 were related to allergens.

European regulation identifies 14 allergens: celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, mollusks, mustard, nuts, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, and sulfur dioxide. In the United States, sesame became the ninth food to be declared an allergen in January 2023.

Figures show more than 7,700 hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of allergic food reactions in the UK in 2019-20 and 10 food allergy-related deaths occur annually.

Type of allergen and reason for the recall
More than a quarter of recalls involved at least two allergenic food groups in a single event. So, while there were 597 recalls, 969 allergens were mentioned, found the study in the journal Food Control.

Products containing milk were the top allergenic food group recalled and accounted for 244 of the 969 reports. It was followed by cereals containing gluten, nuts, soya, eggs, and mustard.

For the 597 recalls, six reasons were identified. The omission of priority allergens on labeling was the main one. This was followed by cross-contamination and products in the wrong packaging.

The three lowest reasons behind recalls were a lack of emphasis on priority allergens, products not being labeled, and items found to contain the allergens they were declared free from. However, the root cause of allergen-related recalls tends to be under-reported, according to the study.

From 2016 to 2021, 316 manufacturers or companies issued 597 recalls for 1,213 products. More than 50 firms recalled at least six products.

The eight with the highest frequency of food recalls were retailers Lidl, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Co-Op, Morrisons, and Booths. Lidl issued 25 recalls due to allergen information and the ingredient list not being labeled in English. All eight stores had recalls because of either cross-contamination or the presence of unwanted allergens.

A total of 29 out of 480 recalls had passed either their best-before or use-by dates at the time of recall. Fourteen products had use-by dates which were microbiologically unsafe to be consumed once past this date. Cereal and bakery products accounted for almost a third of all recalls with expiration dates followed by ready-to-cook items and sugar-based confectioneries.

Manufacturers and retailers need to focus on managing allergen labeling at all stages of the supply chain to drive down recalls by recognizing the errors prior to distribution to retailers, particularly recalls of omitted priority allergens on the label, packaged incorrectly, missed emphasis on priority allergens, and lack of a label in English, said researchers.

Food hypersensitivity impact
Meanwhile, another study has found adults with a food allergy would pay more than £1,000 ($1,200) per year to remove all the symptoms and limitations of their condition, those with coeliac disease would pay £1,342 ($1,615) and people with food intolerances would pay £540 ($651) annually.

More than 2,000 adults living with food hypersensitivities and parents of affected children were asked by researchers from the University of Manchester how much they would be prepared to pay to live without their conditions, for different lengths of time.

Parent’s willingness to pay for children with a food allergy is significantly higher than for the other two conditions. The willingness to pay to remove a child’s condition is greater than that for adults.

Data also showed temporary removal of conditions is of no interest to some people — even at no cost — unless it was for a very long time. Surveys were done online between July and December 2021.

Dan Rigby, from the University of Manchester, said: “These are the first estimates of the monetary value of the inconvenience, anxiety, and pain caused by food allergies, intolerances, and coeliac disease. They can be used, by government and industry, alongside the equivalent monetary values previously estimated at the University of Manchester for foodborne diseases such as Salmonella and E. coli.”

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