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Should food manufacturers list traces elements on labelling?

There are calls for labels on trace elements in food Source: AAP

Reading the ingredients labelled on packaged foods may not be enough to prevent allergic reactions, according to new research. Despite extensive labelling of what has been added to a product, it's clearly stating what hasn't been added that researchers want to see more of.

Fifteen year old Emi Habgood is cautious when it comes to food.

She's been allergic to peanuts, eggs and legumes since she was a baby and thoroughly checks every label before consuming packaged foods.

But, she says, that hasn't always been foolproof.

"We had rice crackers that mum had been giving to me for about six months, I had them in my lunchbox and they were fine. And then I started getting an itchy mouth."

It worried her mother, Helen Czech.

"She said, I've got an itchy mouth, itchy back of the throat. We looked back, we re-read the ingredients and there was nothing in there that she couldn't have. To this day, we don't know what it was. We probably assumed it was maybe peanut or egg."

Emi's allergic reaction wasn't that unusual.

A team of Melbourne researchers surveyed 200 allergists across the country about whether their patients had reactions to foods with packaged labelling.

Professor Katie Allen from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute says the survey results weren't what she was expecting.

"And what we were astounded to find was there was quite a high rate of anaphylaxis, which is the most severe reaction to food happening in the general community."

Over several months, there were 14 cases of anaphylaxis - where the suspected allergen was not a listed ingredient.

"The one thing about this group of patients is, they were being managed by allergists, so we know that they're going to be educated and trained about which foods they should eat and which foods they shouldn't eat, so what we're concerned about, is with routine clinical care, we're having this level of anaphylaxis in the general community."

Manufacturers must list the added ingredients in their products but including terminology such as, 'may contain traces of', is not compulsory.

Allergy experts, like lead author Dr Giovanni Zurzolo from Victoria University, believe those terms are being overused, and want more specific labelling.

"We want them to actually indicate what they actually can eat, by actually saying, this food is safe, or this food has gone through a different risk assessment process, and are safe for consumption."

About half of Australia's food manufacturers use a voluntary risk assessment process called VITAL, which checks cross contamination during food production.

Professor Allen wants the VITAL system - developed by Australian regulators - enforced across the board, and clearly labelled on products.

"This study has shown us that it's time for industry to step up to the mark and stop passing the buck to the consumers. We really are worried about unlabelled foods, which are safe and which are unsafe. And we think it's time the industry helped consumers know which foods they can safely eat."

And Helen Czech says that would make life a lot easier, and safer, for her daughter Emi.

"We're doing all the right things by educating Emi, educating her friends and her community about her allergies but we want others to do the right thing too. I think if there's better quality labelling, it would help us a lot."

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