March 16 (HealthDay News) -- A small number of food products with a "may contain" label actually do contain an allergen, while about 2 percent of foods products without such a claim also contain allergens, new research shows.
But the offending products more often came from smaller companies, noted the authors of a study that is scheduled to be presented Monday at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.
"We didn't do an exhaustive survey of every product out there, but one thing we did notice is that products that didn't have this labeling but did have detectable proteins came primarily from smaller companies," said study senior author Dr. Scott H. Sicherer, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "So for what it's worth, we could presume that small companies don't have as much oversight."
Still, Sicherer added, buying certain food products can be a game of roulette for people with allergies.
"If you're a patient with a food allergy, it's probably best to stick with the larger companies," agreed Dr. David Resnick, director of allergy and immunology at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, New York Presbyterian Hospital, in New York City.
Food allergies, which affect about 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of infants and young children in the United States, can range from the merely irritating to the life-threatening.
"Not too many fatalities are reported with egg allergies, but with peanuts, that's where fatalities are more likely to be reported," Resnick stated. "If you're buying food from a smaller company and have a serious allergy like a peanut allergy, you have to be really cautious."
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) required new labels on packaged foods containing "major food allergens," which were defined as milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans, or any other ingredient that contains protein derived from one of these foods or food groups.
Among other things, the labels had to include plain-English descriptions of ingredients and possible allergens. For example, "milk" is used instead of "casein."
But the issue of "may contain"-type labels was not addressed. Such warnings can include "may contain peanuts," "processed on shared equipment," or "manufactured in a facility that processes peanuts or milk."
Consumers (and probably some experts) have been confused by this sort of labeling, which, said Sicherer, is not regulated.
Of supermarket-sourced, randomly selected food products that had such labeling, 5.3 percent had detectable levels of one of three allergens: egg, milk or peanut.
Among products tested that did not carry "may contain"-type labeling, 1.9 percent had detectable levels of one of the allergens.
In all, 399 products were tested.
Although the researchers did not specifically look at this, about half of the 19 products containing an allergen might prompt a reaction in sensitive people, Sicherer said.
The group also did not explore which food types or groups were more likely to contain allergens, but other researchers reporting at the same meeting found that dark chocolates were a leading offender.
A food industry spokesman said that current labeling is guided by the best available science.
"Our members are committed to ensuring that food allergic consumers have the information they need on the food label to make informed choices about whether or not a particular food item is appropriate for them to eat," said Brian Kennedy, director of communications at the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association. "That is why we support the use of science-based criteria by food and beverage companies in determining whether or not a supplemental or 'may contain' allergen advisory on a food product label is necessary."
SOURCES: Scott H. Sicherer, M.D., associate professor, pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; David Resnick, M.D., director, allergy and immunology, Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, New York Presbyterian Hospital, New York City; Brian Kennedy, director of communications, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, DC; March 16, 2009, presentation, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology annual meeting, Washington, D.C.