A House of Commons Report in 2004 on The Provision of Allergy Services states that as many as 1 in 50 children are allergic to nuts (peanuts or tree nuts). Several research papers including; ‘How do we know when peanut and tree nut allergy have resolved, and how do we keep it resolved?’ (Byrne et al, 2010), indicate that only 20% of young patients outgrow peanut allergies and 10% will outgrow their tree nut allergies. This still leaves a large proportion of the general public with a peanut or tree nut allergy, who are potential consumers of pre-packaged chocolate and chocolate products.
It is important to bear in mind that allergic reactions experienced by sufferers can vary significantly from mild to moderate, to extreme cases when the body will go into anaphylactic shock. Also, the levels of allergen ingested that will trigger an allergic reaction can be very small (Anaphylaxis Campaign, 2010).
In 2006, a study was carried out on 174 teenagers and young adult food allergy sufferers to assess how they manage their food allergies on a day to day basis (Sampson et al, 2006). 42% admitted to consuming foods where the label stated ‘may contain’ indicating complacency amongst consumers with this type of labelling. In addition, fatal food–induced reactions seem to be more common within this age group. A report published in the Journal of Family Practice in 2010 indicates that teenagers and young adults behave inconsistently to allergy avoidance and also tend not to carry their epinephrine auto-injector which is required by those sufferers who react severely to specific allergens (Stoloff S, 2010).
More recently, research published on ‘Understanding the food choice reasoning of nut allergic consumers’ commissioned by the Foods Standards Agency (2011) also indicates a complacency amongst consumers when purchasing and consuming products when the label states that it ‘may contain nuts’ or ‘may contain traces or nuts’. The majority of participants in this research ignored the ‘may contain’ messages and believed that they were not desirable or credible. Further research by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland FSAI (2011) looking for the presence of peanuts and other allergens found that only 5 of 75 samples carrying a nut warning tested positive for peanuts, illustrating the unreliability of precautionary allergen labelling.
With this in mind there is a possibility that the use of the term ’may contain nuts’ in chocolate is restricting customer choice, creating a dangerous complacency amongst consumers at risk and potentially narrowing market opportunities for businesses. It could be argued that strict quality control measures used as part of a business’s food safety management system should reasonably be able to mitigate the risk/risk from contamination with a potential food allergen.
In Bath & North East Somerset there are 2 universities and a college which increases the number of teenagers and adolescents visiting and staying the area. With this age group many have left home for the first time and are responsible for the food they consume. As Stolloff (2010) indicates this age group is particularly susceptible to fatal food induced allergic reactions, it was decided to carry out a small sampling survey of chocolate, a favourite confectionary item that is readily available to that age group with particular emphasis on establishing whether the chocolate ‘may contain’ specific nuts including; peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds and walnuts.
The aim of this survey is to question, through laboratory analysis whether the use of the term ‘may contain nuts’ is justified in chocolate manufacturing. In addition, it is hoped that this will raise awareness of peanut and tree nut allergies amongst the general public as well as manufacturers both locally and further a field, which may re-ignite the debate around food allergy labelling.