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A University of Melbourne researcher has called for the tighter regulation of food labelling after suggesting that incorrect labels were causing allergic reactions and contributing to the recall of food products.

Dr Giovanni Zurzolo, a research fellow at the University’s Melbourne School of Population and Global Health as well as the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, made the findings public as part of a new, collaboratively-written journal article that utilises recent data from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

Data recorded from the organisation between 2009 and 2018 showed that FSANZ recalled 675 food products, with 39% of those due to undeclared allergens, and 26% from “microbial contamination – such as yeast or bacteria”, according to Dr Zurzolo.

Wanting to understand what was causing such a high volume of undeclared allergen recalls, FSANZ sought to clarify the matter by adding a supplementary question as part of its process from mid-2016.

Of the undeclared allergen recalls over the ensuing 2016 to 2018 period, 56% were due to “food product” that “was either packed into incorrect packaging or incorrectly labelled”, while “supplier verification issues” (16%) and “cross-contact” (10%) also caused recalls.

Until this information was uncovered, cross-contact, which includes scenarios such as the traces of nuts occasionally found in chocolate, was often suggested as the main reason for undeclared allergen recalls, with Dr Zurzolo saying this was no longer likely to be the case.

“Our current results suggest that in Australia, packaging errors are a leading cause of food recalls due to presence of undeclared food allergens, not allergen cross-contact… This finding may also explain the relatively high prevalence of consumer reported anaphylaxis to processed food, as we have previously reported,” he said.

The researcher, whose is funded by the Centre for Food and Allergy Research at Murdoch Institute, used this data as part of an aforementioned article for the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, adding that the information suggests there is plenty of room for “improved packaging practices”.

“We have called upon industry and governments to have one risk-assessment process that all manufacturers must adhere to… That would help reduce the chances of these adverse reactions,” Dr Zurzolo said.

Dr Zurzolo’s call also comes after a bipartisan parliamentary health committee accepted the Centre for Food and Allergy Research’s recommendations “to help prevent, cure and manage food allergies” earlier this month.