Survey to look at how many Canadians have potentially fatal food allergies

Source of Article: http://canadianpress.google.com/article/ALeqM5g2o7A0evnk1uZ_5fZ1EErz9MP-vA

TORONTO Researchers have launched a national survey to determine how many Canadians suffer from potentially fatal food allergies and how effective food labelling is in helping consumers avoid allergens that may be hazardous to their health.

Details of the survey of 9,000 Canadians were announced Wednesday, at the same time as federal Health Minister Tony Clement outlined proposed new labelling requirements for allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites in pre-packaged foods.

The survey by researchers at the Allergy, Genes and Environment Network (AllerGen), conducted in partnership with Health Canada, is aimed at nailing down the actual prevalence in the population of severe allergies to the "Big Five" - peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and sesame seeds.

"We have virtually no prevalence data in Canada on food allergies," although the proportion of Canadians affected appears to be on the rise, said co-principal investigator Susan Elliott of McMaster University in Hamilton.

"If we do suspect that food allergies are increasing, then we need to know what the baseline is and what food allergies are increasing," Elliott said in a phone interview.

Anaphylaxis Canada, which has also contributed funding toward the $400,000-$500,000 study, estimates that four per cent of Canadians are at risk for an anaphylactic reaction to particular foods.

Dr. Ann Clarke, another co-principal investigator of the survey project, said a 2000-2002 study she led of Montreal elementary-school children found 1.5 per cent had an allergy to peanuts, one of the most common causes of the severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock.

"The reaction can range in severity," Clarke, a professor of medicine at McGill University who specializes in allergy and epidemiology, said Wednesday from Montreal. For instance, "within five to 10 minutes after ingesting a peanut, you can get itchy lips, a burning in the mouth, hives or a red, itchy rash."

"And that can range to then a tightening of the throat, difficulty breathing and basically a drop in blood pressure and death," said Clarke, noting that the more severe reaction requires urgent treatment with a shot of epinephrine to reverse the allergic reaction, followed by immediate medical attention.

Elliott said results from the allergy-prevalence survey should be delivered to Health Canada early next year and are aimed at helping policy-makers take steps to prevent, diagnose and manage allergic diseases, as well as to aid food companies in developing clearer and safer labelling.

She said there is evidence that some types of food labels may actually be leading to instances of allergic reactions among consumers.

"So people are either misunderstanding the food labels that are currently in use or they're ignoring them, not paying attention to them ... and that's having an impact on the number of adverse events - and we're talking about a potentially fatal allergy."

Current regulations require that food product ingredients be declared on the labels of most pre-packaged foods. However, components of certain ingredients - such as flavourings and spices - are exempted.

The improved regulations would require manufacturers to declare all food allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites, and to spell out exactly how these ingredients are to be listed on labels.

"We want all food with common allergens to be clearly labelled and we want any main ingredient in a food item that may have been created using an allergenic substance to be labelled just as clearly," Clement said in announcing the changes.

"These new proposed labelling requirements will provide Canadians with the information they need to manage their own allergies and give parents greater assurance about the food they give their children who may have allergies."

While the new regulations would be a step forward, Clarke said they do not address the issue of vaguely worded labels, such as those that say a product "may contain" an allergen like peanuts. Nor do they deal with ways to verify food manufacturers' claims that a product is allergen-free, she said.

Still, Anaphylaxis Canada welcomed the proposed regulatory changes, saying they would allow consumers to make safer choices when purchasing food products.

"Allergic consumers and those who shop for them must understand and trust what they are reading on food labels," said executive director Laurie Harada, who has a teen with food allergies. "Avoidance of foods which can cause an allergic reaction is key to staying safe."

 

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