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Managing Food Allergies During COVID-19 and the Importance of Proper Food Labelling

african american family smiling food
african american family smiling food
Beatrice Povolo

Beatrice Povolo

Director, Advocacy & Media Relations at Food Allergy Canada

Food Allergy Canada talks about what Canadians should look for in their labels, managing food allergies during the pandemic, and the importance of allergy awareness in relation to food innovation.

When it comes to food allergies, why is proper food labelling so important?

Food allergy is a serious medical condition directly impacting over 3 million Canadians and 50 percent of households who make decisions on safe food choices on their behalf. As there is no cure, and the possibility that a small amount of a food allergen, if ingested, can lead to anaphylaxis (a potentially life-threatening reaction), individuals at risk must be vigilant in avoiding their food allergen(s). Having access to clear and accurate ingredient information is key to allowing those at-risk to make informed food choices and stay safe.

What should Canadians look for in a food label?

Reading and checking ingredient labels for your allergen(s) is part of grocery shopping for households managing food allergies. Knowing what’s in the food you’re buying is essential to avoid a reaction and staying safe. To help ensure you can find products that meet your needs, here are some important tips to consider:

  • Review the ingredient list carefully for your allergen(s) before purchasing, including the full list of ingredients in the product, any “contains” statements (if used) and any precautionary allergen labelling such as “may contain”.  If your allergen(s) is listed, you should avoid this product.
  • We recommend the Triple Check. Read labels:
    • Once at the store or online before buying it
    • Once when you put it away
    • Again, before you serve or eat the product
  • If you’re not sure about a product, contact the manufacturer directly with your questions

During the pandemic, ordering groceries online and using 3rd party delivery services has become the new normal. Why should individuals with food allergies be paying extra attention to the food they order and what can they do to stay safe?

Like many Canadians, consumers with food allergy are looking for alternative options to in-person shopping during the pandemic. However, this can pose additional challenges when it comes to accessing ingredient information, as the information provided online may differ from what is on the food package. As such, extra vigilance is required to ensure the products you buy are safe options for you and/or your family. We recommend the following measures to be taken when shopping online:

  • Review the online ingredient list carefully (as outlined above) before ordering, as some online stores may have different levels of information that are displayed. If ingredient information is not provided, consider alternative products that do provide ingredient information.
  • Stick to products/brands you are familiar with and have purchased before.
  • Do not allow for substitutions when ordering online as some of these products may not have the same ingredients as the product you have selected.
  • Upon delivery of your groceries, check and read the ingredient label on all products carefully.

What can restaurants do to keep individuals with food allergies safe during the pandemic?

During the pandemic, with a shift to more takeout and delivery-only options, there have been additional challenges for consumers with food allergies to access ingredient information and staff who can discuss safe menu options with them. To help keep individuals with food allergy safe, here are some tips for restaurants to consider:

  • Ensure staff take all food allergy requests seriously and know their role in managing these requests.
  • Provide guests with easy access to ingredient information and make this ingredient information available through all your sales channels, including in-house, phone orders, your website, 3rd party online ordering sites and apps.
  • Give guests the opportunity to speak to one of your senior staff members (e.g. manager, chef) for any ingredient-related or preparation questions during regular business hours.
  • Ensure your ordering process captures and shares food allergy requests, including any orders submitted through a 3rd party delivery service.
  • Keep all ingredient labels on food products coming into your establishment and avoid adding any new ingredients or common allergens to existing recipes.

Dining out with food allergies can be challenging, but it can be done safely. Individuals with food allergy, and their families, are loyal, repeat diners who are looking for restaurants that can accommodate their food allergies and provide them with a sense of confidence in their ability to manage food allergies.

Why is allergy awareness so important in relation to the future of food innovation?

Food innovation often follows consumer trends and demand for something new and exciting.  As food companies look to capitalize on these trends and develop new products, they also need to consider the potential consequences for those with food allergies. As more priority or emerging allergens are added to food products, it limits the choices available to these consumers and for some, it may mean finding these allergens in products they wouldn’t expect. For example, with the growth of plant-based diets, pea protein or other legumes are being used more broadly and in products, consumers may not expect to find them (e.g., yogurt, cookies, pizza). As such, this can increase the risk of exposure to non-priority allergens and potential allergic reactions. With any new food product innovation, regardless if it is pre-packaged food or new menu items, food allergy needs to be part of the conversation.

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