Food allergies are caused by consuming foods that produce a reaction as they interact with the immune system to cause an allergic reaction. Food allergies can give rise to mild symptoms like itching, swelling of face, lips, tongue or eyes. It can also cause more severe reactions like stomach cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting, difficulty in breathing, wheezing and in extreme cases can even lead to shock.
According to studies there are actually 160 food materials that can cause allergies. Of these the most common allergenic foods are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, crustacea/shellfish, soy and wheat or cereals containing gluten, as well as ingredients derived from those foods. In India allergies can also be caused by chick peas, rice, black gram and mustard to name a few. In children the food allergies are caused by milk, eggs, wheat or soy. Allergy to fish and shellfish usually develops later as adults and once developed, allergy to fish continues for life.
According to the 1999 Codex Alimentarius Commission guidelines, it is mandatory for food labels of member countries to contain the names of the common food allergens. In India presently there is no mandatory labeling on allergens but in most countries of the world it is mandatory to list allergenic foods in the labels according to allergenic foods in their country. Food allergens need to be listed because allergy to foods is on the rise all over the world. In India the only allergen labeling on packaged foods presently is that packed foods need to mention the complete list of ingredients in the food products. This labeling regulation allows customers to select foods that do not contain foods they are allergic to.
Besides allergens from direct foods cross contamination during food production can also cause products to get contaminated with allergens at any point in the food chain. Shared equipment can cause allergenic ingredients to reach foods. Since there is no certainty about the amounts of allergens that can cause reactions food manufacturers in several countries now use precautionary allergen labels (PAL) which state that the ingredients “may contain” allergenic foods and name the possible allergens in their food products. Since there is no processing tool that can fully remove allergens, labeling of ingredients is most important to keep consumers safe and prevent health problems.
In India, presently there is no mandatory labeling of food allergens specified in the food products except for Infant Milk Substitute. As per Food Safety & Standards (Packaging & labelling) Regulations, 2011, the mandatory labeling for allergenic foods has been specified for Infant Milk Substitute; Clause 7 of Regulation No. 2.4.1 states:
The container of infant milk substitute meant for infants with allergy to cow’s /buffalo’s milk protein or soy protein or label affixed thereto shall indicate conspicuously “HYPOALLERGENIC FORMULA” in capital letters and statement “TO BE TAKEN UNDER MEDICAL ADVICE”.
FSSAI’s Expert Committee is working on a draft for mandatory allergen labeling to protect consumers. Mandatory allergen warning is also important because foods & ingredients are now imported and exported to various countries globally. If Indian products do not have an allergen label then many a time they are not allowed to be imported into countries. In the USA one of the reasons that Indian food products are rejected is because they do not have allergen labels.