Food Allergy And Packaged Foods

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Top Tips

  1. Read packaged food labels every time, as lists of ingredients and food processing can change.
  2. Check and respect ‘may contain’ statements.
  3. When buying unlabelled food (such as takeaway or cafe food), disclose your food allergy and ask about food allergen content.

Always Read The Label

Food in Australia is required by law under the Food Standards
Code, to display the most common allergens on its packaging.

These allergens must be declared if they are included as:

  • An ingredient
  • Part of a compound ingredient (for example, if milk chocolate is present as an ingredient in a biscuit)
  • A food additive
  • A processing aid

The Food Standards Code also requires that added sulphites in concentrations of 10mg/kg or more must also be declared on food labels of packaged foods. Sulphites are listed because sulphites in food can trigger asthma symptoms in people with asthma.

New Labelling Laws in Australia

The new Plain English Allergen Labelling (PEAL) law means that the common names of food allergens must be listed on a food label. (e.g. the word egg rather than just the protein in egg which is albumin). Food companies need to make these changes by 2026, so up until then you will need to know how to read labels that comply with both the new and old laws. Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia has Food Allergen Cards listing other words for the common allergens and foods the allergens may be in.

How to read food labels that meet the old Food Standards Code

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Even though there is a change to the Food Standards Code in place, foods with labels that meet the old Code can still be available for up to 5 years.

The old Food Standards Code requires the following allergen information to be labelled and available to customers:

  • Peanut
  • Tree nuts, (e.g. almonds, cashews)
  • Egg
  • Cow’s milk (this includes all dairy foods)
  • Fish
  • Crustacea (e.g. prawns, lobster)
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soy/soybeans
  • Cereals containing gluten and their products, namely, wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt and their hybridised strains (e.g. triticale)
  • Lupin

How to read food labels that meet the new PEAL law

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Under the new PEAL law, ingredients are to be listed with the plain English name alongside the actual ingredient name.

In the statement of ingredients, declarations must:

  • Be in bold font.
  • Have bold font contrasting distinctly with other text.
  • Have the same size font as other text.

The allergens must also be listed in a summary statement beginning with the word ‘contains’ next to, but separate from, the ingredient list. This could be above, below or on either side of the ingredient list.

Some other important changes under the new PEAL law include:

  • The name of the specific tree nut (almond, Brazil nut, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pine nut, pistachio and walnut) must be included in the ingredients list and in the summary statement.
  • The specific name of the cereal must be stated in the ingredients list as either wheat, barley, oats or rye. Where wheat is present, it must also be included in the summary statement.
  • ‘Gluten’ must appear in the summary statements whenever gluten from wheat, rye, oats or barley (or their hybrids) is present. The term ‘Cereals containing gluten’ cannot be used.
  • Fish, crustacea and mollusc must be separately declared in both the ingredients list and summary statement.

While the transition to new labelling laws is taking place, make sure you check the packaging carefully because plain English names may not have been used yet.

Further information about the Food Standards Code is available from the FSANZ website:

www.foodstandards.gov.au/code/Pages/default.aspx

Confused about wheat and gluten?

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  • Some people find labelling about gluten and wheat confusing.
  • People with a wheat allergy need to avoid wheat. They need to check if wheat is an ingredient rather than just gluten. They may be able to eat other gluten containing cereals (such as rye, barley and oats), unless they are also allergic to rye, barley or oats.
  • People with coeliac disease need to avoid all gluten and grains that contain gluten. Gluten is found in wheat and several other grains including rye, barley, oats, spelt or their hybridised strains.

Confused about milk (dairy) allergy and lactose intolerance?

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What does lactose free mean?

  • Lactose free products have only had the lactose (a type of sugar in milk) removed.
  • Lactose free products still contain the milk protein and therefore can cause an allergic reaction.
  • People with lactose intolerance are not at risk of anaphylaxis unless they also have a milk allergy.

Lactose free products contain milk protein and must not be consumed by people with a milk (dairy) allergy. 

  • Milk (dairy) allergy should not be confused with lactose intolerance. They are different.
  • People with a milk allergy are allergic to the protein in milk and are at risk of anaphylaxis if they drink milk, even if the milk is lactose-free.
  • Remember, milk allergy means all dairy products (such as butter, yoghurt, cheese) have to be avoided.

What about dairy free products?

  • Dairy free products are derived from nuts or plants and should not contain any dairy protein at all. However, the ingredient list and any precautionary allergen labelling (e.g. ‘may contain’) should always be checked to see if they contain any milk products.
  • Some coconut milks, drinks or creams contain milk, so they would not be suitable for people with a milk (dairy) allergy.
  • Be aware that vegan foods can sometimes contain small amounts of milk and egg. Never presume they are completely milk or egg free unless they are marked milk or egg free.

What about ‘may contain’ statements?

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  • Statements such as “May contain…” and “Made on equipment that also produces products containing…” are examples of precautionary allergen labelling statements.
  • These statements are voluntary and not regulated by the Food Standards Code.
  • They are often used to explain that during growing, transport, storing and making the food, the product may have been unintentionally contaminated with an allergen and the product may be a risk to the person with food allergy because even small amounts of an allergen can trigger an allergic reaction.
  • You should talk to your allergist about whether foods containing precautionary allergen statements should be eaten.
  • If you would like more information about the level of risk, contact the manufacturer of the product for more information.

Reporting a reaction to packaged food

If you have an allergic reaction to a food after checking the ingredients list, it’s important to report your reaction to protect others.

Once you have managed your allergic reaction and recovered, you should report the reaction to the health department.

Information about who to contact and what to do is available from the following link: How to report a food thought to have triggered an allergic reaction/anaphylaxis

Content Updated: Jan 2023