Published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology, the study revealed that 14 percent of the 252 children participating accidentally consumed peanut allergens in the past year.
This compares to about 50 percent of children participating in an American study in 1989.
Further reduction desirable
“Although we have reported that accidental exposures to peanut occur at a lower frequency than reported 15 years before, a further reduction is desirable,” wrote the researchers, headed by Dr Ann Clarke or McGill University in Montreal.
And one way of achieving this is through the enforcement of more stringent food manufacturing standards and more accurate food labelling that will provide clearer consumer directives, they added.
The food industry has already faced tougher new allergen labelling rules since January 1 this year. These require that food manufacturers identify, "in plain, common language", the presence of any of the eight major food allergens, including peanuts.
The nation's Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimates that 11 million people in the US – or 1-in-25 Americans - are affected by food allergies, with around three million suffering from allergies to peanuts or tree nuts.
And between 0,8 percent and 1,5 percent of children in the US are currently estimated to suffer from peanut allergy, with recent studies suggesting that its prevalence is increasing.
While no exact South African statistics are available, it is estimated that around 10% of the patients attending allergy clinics in this country are allergic to peanuts.
Accidental exposure serious
Due to the serious nature of this type of allergy, the potential for accidental exposure has become an important concern. This is especially the case since peanut allergies generally persist throughout life, unlike milk and egg allergies, which typically resolve during early childhood.
Indeed, allergy concerns have led to many schools in Canada to prohibit peanuts or peanut products. Of the children participating in the current study, who had an average age of eight, around 80 percent attended schools prohibiting peanuts.
And the measures appear to have had an effect, with only one of the 35 reported accidental exposures having occurred in school. Fourteen occurred at home, 12 in the homes of friends or relatives, and six at a restaurant. In two cases, the location was not specified.
The fact that accidental exposures continue to occur in the home is of particular concern, said the researchers, who recommend that further education is necessary in order to avoid mistakes in reading product labels.
Mistakes in product labelling
However, some cases still occur due to mistakes in product labelling, a process that is not only dangerous to consumers but also costly to manufacturers.
A study by the US Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition reported that in 1999, of 659 recalled foods, 236 had at least one undeclared allergen, with peanut detected in 15 percent of recalled products. Reasons for recall included omission of the ingredient on the label, ingredient errors, manufacturing equipment cross-contamination, and errors by ingredient suppliers or manufacturing firm employees. - (Decision News Media, August 2006)
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