Specific things to look out for when shopping for allergy sufferers.
What to look for on food labels
Common allergens are usually labelled as such on pre-packaged foods, but check what other terms may be used as the ingredient may be labelled by a technical name such as casein, lactalbumin or whey (milk); albumen, ovalbumin (egg); arachis, satay or beer nuts (peanut); tofu, tempeh or tamari (soy).
Allergy New Zealand has ingredient cards listing ingredients and hidden sources of common allergens if you would like more information on this.
Does 'may contain traces of…' really matter?
Food manufacturers source raw ingredients from all over the world. They store, handle and process thousands of ingredients on complex equipment, and despite stringent manufacturing practice and allergen controls, at times the risk of contamination with an allergenic food is simply too great or too difficult to control. They let consumers know by placing a warning on their product. There are some companies who continue to use blanket warnings, but it is safest to heed all warnings.
There are no regulations around allergen warning statements, such as 'may contain', so it is left to food companies to decide when and how to use a warning on their products.
People with food allergies develop antibodies that cause an allergic reaction if they are exposed to the food; whether eaten, touched, or even inhaled. So 'traces of…' really can be that dangerous.
What is in non-labelled products?
Supermarket delicatessens, meat departments and bakeries manufacture, prepare and package many food items that are often displayed in open cabinets. These items might not have an ingredient list on display, but the ingredient information must be supplied on request.
The risk of allergen cross-contamination is high in these sorts of displays, so it is probably easiest to avoid these food items altogether. If you do choose to purchase items, pay close attention to the following:
- Delicatessen: Check that the meat slicers, utensils and equipment have been thoroughly cleaned between preparation of different products. Has the handler washed his hands and changed gloves?
- Bakery items: Often stacked on open trays, so the risk of cross-contamination with allergens such as sesame seed or cheese is very high. It may be safest to purchase commercially packed bread items.
- Meat display: Look at the variety of meats on display. Meat cuts with marinades, crumbs or sauces such as satay sauce may be next to plain cuts, or displayed at the bottom of the counter so there is a high risk of contamination onto other trays when the operator reaches down to take pieces from the display. Ask whether sauces or crumbs containing allergens are kept separate in the preparation area.
- Fruit and vegetable display: Nuts are sometimes displayed next to fresh fruit items, which may contaminate the fruit. Careful washing of fruit is essential.
- Bulk bins: Risky for food allergic consumers, for example peanuts and other nuts may be displayed above other items or scoops may be used for more than one item so there is a risk of cross-contamination. It is safest to avoid buying from bins.