Research from GS1 warns that mislabelled or unclear food packaging has caused 56% of consumers with food allergies to suffer from an allergic reaction, with the company uplifting next-generation barcodes as an instantly-updatable resolution.

According to GS1 UK, 60% of shoppers with allergy-related dietary requirements read product packaging in-store to access allergen information. However, only one in four (24%) always find the ingredients or warnings they are looking for.

Whether or not the information is available, the results suggest that people with food allergies are almost twice as likely to distrust it than those who do not have them (12% vs. 7%). Those who are sceptical question the label’s accuracy (53%), the use of vague language like ‘may contain’ (52%), its small text (27%), and a lack of provisions for their specific requirements (13%).

Indeed, over half of GS1’s respondents have attributed a reaction to incorrect or confusing labelling, and 23% report suffering multiple reactions. Seven in ten individuals state that they are nervous about eating food that they or a close family member did not prepare.

Some consumers have turned to searching online (41%), visiting manufacturer websites (24%), seeking out product leaflets (23%), and asking staff in store (17%), but 43% of respondents stated that they would prefer to scan packaging with their smartphone to access product information.

Precautionary allergen labels can also cause confusion, as GS1 UK goes on to report that 72% of respondents believe that products labelled ‘free from’ should contain no traces of the ingredient in question, e.g. gluten, dairy, or nuts. While this is true, the company explains that ‘free from’ labels do not mean that the product cannot contain other allergens.

Vegan food is not yet included in food law, it adds, so a product marketed as meat-free may still contain animal products. According to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), one in three vegan foods contain milk and eggs.

Additionally, labels can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer based on their individual interpretation of the guidelines. This inconsistency has apparently led 20% of consumers with allergies to risk eating foods with ‘may contain’ warnings on the packaging.

80% of GS1 UK’s respondents were previously unaware that manufacturers do not abide by a clear definition of ‘may contain’. 73% did not know that there is not any legal or regulatory guidance for manufacturers regarding precautionary allergen labels, and 56% learned that these labels are voluntary.

Next-generation barcodes could be the solution, GS1 UK claims. This technology combines the linear barcode and QR code and is connected to a product’s unique identity; as such, it can be updated in real time to ensure that allergen information is both accurate and accessible.

Compared to 58% of consumers without allergies, 83% of consumers with allergies are more likely to be influenced by the presence of a QR code leading to detailed product information. 64% already use their smartphones to scan on-pack QR codes.

A third (33%) state that they are more likely to buy a product with a QR code on its packaging, while 29% feel more confident making a purchase if a QR code is present.

A full list of ingredients (57%) and allergens (56%), health and nutritional information (41%), and details on precautionary allergen labelling like ‘may contain’ (37%) are highlighted among the key information that consumers with allergies would like to find when they scan a QR code.

“There are devastating consequences of undeclared allergens or unclear labelling,” explained food allergy expert Professor Adam Fox. “The lack of legislation surrounding precautionary allergen labelling, terms like ‘may contain’ is a huge concern.

“Next-generation QR codes can only help to provide the transparency needed to keep people with food allergies safe in what has become the potential lottery of food labelling.”

“The widespread use of next-generation QR codes on food packaging could provide the transparency needed for those with allergies to make better-informed decisions,” Sarah Knight, CEO of digital health platform The Allergy Team, continued. “It would allow brands to provide greater clarity on what phrases like ‘may contain nuts’ mean.

“For example, was the item made on a production line with nuts or was it made in a separate part of the factory which reduces the risk of contamination? Details like this could save lives – and will no doubt alleviate huge anxiety for people with food allergies and their families.”

Julianne Ponan MBE, CEO of Creative Nature Superfoods, commented: “I’m a sufferer of anaphylaxis to all peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds and certain additives. Unclear food labelling can be a matter of life and death. A huge number of brands are lazy on labelling, choosing to protect themselves, not the consumer.

“It would be unacceptable to release food items with labelling that says ‘may contain glass’ - so why is it acceptable to use may contain labelling for ingredients that can be lethal to many consumers in the UK?

“There is a desperate need for a universal agreement of what ‘may contain’ constitutes so consumers can make informed decisions. The adoption of QR codes powered by GS1 on food packaging has the potential to revolutionize the much-needed transparency, particularly for individuals like myself with allergies.

“This innovation enables brands to offer unprecedented clarity regarding statements such as ‘may contain nuts, egg, milk’. As well as allowing brands to tell the full story to offer more transparency to the customer.

“Such detailed information isn’t merely informative; it’s lifesaving. It promises to not only save lives but also to provide immense relief to allergy sufferers and their loved ones, easing the burden of anxiety that often accompanies mealtime decisions.”

Sarah Atkins, CMO and membership director of GS1 UK, concluded: “Undeclared ingredients and unclear labelling can have devastating consequences for people with allergies. Both brands and retailers need to ensure that consumers are kept informed and protected with product data they can trust.

“QR codes powered by GS1 can address this challenge, providing consumers with instant access to the information they need to stay safe and well.”

Earlier this year, Branston revealed that it would utilize the Orca Scan GS1 Digital Link QR solution on its pickle, sauce, and beans packaging, offering a list of allergens, sustainability information, recipes, and more at the touch of a smartphone.

Unilever further utilized Zappar’s Accessible QR (AQR) technology in collaboration with Be My Eyes – providing AI-powered virtual assistance for blind and visually impaired consumers by connecting them to a volunteer or virtual chat bot. Here they can access audible cooking instructions and answer questions about the recipe or cooking process.

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