Food companies are failing to disclose allergens, putting people’s health at risk

In 2023, 154 foods were recalled because of unlabeled allergens. How can people protect their health and avoid foods that could trigger dangerous allergies?

Woman reading food date label in a grocery store
Laura James | Used by permission
Woman reading food date label in a grocery store

Food allergies are a serious threat to the health of millions of Americans. About 6% of adults have a food allergy – and so do 1 in 13 children, or about 2 students in every classroom in America.

Exposure to allergens in food is dangerous, and can even be deadly. If you or your child are allergic to common ingredients, you know how challenging it can be to shop for safe, allergen-free food. Shoppers depend on companies to appropriately label the ingredients of their products to tell whether any given food is safe.

But the FDA and USDA issued more than 300 food recalls last year – and revealed an alarming trend about allergen labeling.

There was an increase in food recalls due to allergens in 2023

When something is wrong with the food on store shelves – such as contamination or mislabeling – a recall may be issued to help prevent customers from getting sick. In some cases, the items are already in people’s refrigerators or pantries.

Nearly half of all food recalls in 2023, 154 items, were recalled because a known allergen was not disclosed on the label. That’s a pretty serious uptick compared with the prior year, when only 121 recalls were due to undeclared allergens.

What allergens are companies required to list on food labels?

The increase in food recalls due to allergens is partially due to recent changes in allergen labeling laws.

New legislation recently added sesame to the list of eight other major allergens that have required disclosure on food labels. Some companies may not yet have caught up to this relatively new requirement, resulting in undeclared sesame in their foods. About 8% of the recalls due to unlabeled allergens last year were due to undeclared sesame alone.

But the majority of allergen-related recalls last year were still due to the other eight major allergens, or a combination of allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy. The labeling requirements for these ingredients are not new, and companies that fail to label them are putting their customers at risk.

Companies know they must declare allergens, but they’re failing to protect our health with appropriate labels

How does allergen mislabeling end up happening?

In some cases, mistakes during the production or packaging of food lead to situations where undisclosed allergens make it onto store shelves. This was the case for Van’s Gluten Free Original Waffles, which were recalled because they may contain undeclared wheat. The company says this was because packaging cartons got mixed up and paired with the wrong products.

But in other cases, companies simply aren’t labeling their products appropriately. Paradise Flavors ice cream bars were recalled because they could contain a plethora of undeclared allergens including peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, milk, and color additives. An investigation found that the packaging simply failed to disclose any of these potential allergens.

How to protect yourself from allergens in food

There’s no surefire way to tell whether a product contains an allergen if the company fails to label it appropriately. If you or a loved one have a food allergy, the best thing to do at the grocery store is to stick to brands that you know and trust. 

When a recall happens, it only helps keep customers safe if the people who bought the food are actually informed of the recall – but it can be difficult for customers to find out about recalls in a timely fashion. Right now, there is no requirement for alerts to be sent to stores or affected customers when a recall occurs. 

Together, we can change that and make shopping safer for everyone with allergies. Take action to tell the FDA to do more to keep consumers informed about recalled foods.

Tell the FDA: We need food recall alerts
USP-FoodSafety-Rido-via-Shutterstock

Consumer alerts

Tell the FDA: We need food recall alerts

When something you bought at the grocery store gets recalled, you won’t know it’s dangerous unless the grocer tells you. The FDA can require alerts that will help keep us safe.

SIGN THE PETITION

Topics
Authors

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, PIRG

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.

Find Out More