A recent study analyzing food allergen recalls in the UK from 2016–2021 has revealed allergens to be the most prevalent cause, and milk to be the most commonly implicated allergen.

Recall data from the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) for the dates January 1, 2016–December 31, 2021 was collected for the study. To supplement FSA recall and allergy alert data, information was also gathered from Food Standards Scotland (FSS) recall alerts and the UK National Archives. Important to note is that the study only focused on recalls of prepackaged food from recall alerts reported by FSA or FSS publicly, and did not include food allergen-related cases not reported on public product recall alert platforms.

For 2016–2021, the causes of food recalls reported by FSA and FSS are as follows:

  • Allergens: 57.6 percent
  • Microbiological hazards: 19 percent
  • Physical contaminants: 16.7 percent

The findings are consistent with data from 2013–2016, during which period allergens caused 50.4 percent of food recalls in the UK. The data also reflects recall data published from 2017–2020 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S., where the majority of recalls were allergen-related. Specifically, in the U.S. during the reporting period, 44.5 percent of recalls for non-meat and non-poultry products were allergen-related, as were 37.8 percent of recalls for meat and poultry products. Similarly, allergen-related recalls were the leading type of food recall reported by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), accounting for 45.5 percent of recalls from 2016–2021. In contrast, microbiological hazards were the leading cause for food notifications from 2018–2020 reported by the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), which includes alerts, border rejection, information, and news.

The years 2016–2020 saw 597 allergen-related recalls reported in the UK, with an increase of 4.21 percent year-over-year (YOY). This trend is similar to that in Australia and New Zealand (14.3 percent YOY growth rate) and the EU (24.7 percent). Possible reasons for the steady increase may include growing consumer and food business operator awareness of allergens, heightened food manufacturing volumes, and improved food recall reporting and surveillance networks. However, a decline in allergen-related recalls of 15.3 percent was observed in 2020 compared to 2019, which was potentially due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the 597 allergen-related recalls reported in the UK during 2016–2021, products containing milk were the most frequently reported, accounting for 25.2 percent. Milk was followed by products containing cereals with gluten (16.9 percent), nuts (10.6 percent), soya (10.3 percent), eggs (8.5 percent), and mustard (7.1 percent). This pattern is also observed in the U.S. with 36 percent of allergen-related recalls being caused by milk from 2007–2012 and 30 percent in Australia from 2012–2021.

Recalls involving milk, cereals containing gluten, nuts, soya, eggs, mustard, peanuts, and sesame generally increased over the years before a sharp drop was observed in 2020 (likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as improvements in allergen labeling procedures). Apart from fish and mollusks, recalls involving all the other allergenic food groups decreased in 2020 from the year before, with a 39.3 percent reduction observed in milk recalls. Significant decreases in 2020 were also noted for sesame (100 percent), mustard (63.2 percent), and cereals containing gluten (46.9 percent).

Of the 597 recalls issued, six distinct reasons were identified. Omission of an allergen from a product’s listed ingredients was the most common cause (40 percent), followed by cross-contamination (18.9 percent) and mispackaging (17.1 percent). The most common reason recorded in recalls from Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, the UK, and the U.S. from 2011–2014 was due to not indicating an allergen on a product label.

Additionally, a significant number of products were either expired or within seven days of expiration at the time of recall. Products with “best-before” dates (351) dominated those with “use-by” dates (129) in the data; however, the latter exhibited a much higher percentage within seven days of expiration (62.8 percent versus 9.4 percent), and over twice the level of date-expired products (10.9 percent versus 4.3). Therefore, despite recalls being issued, consumers with allergies may have consumed such products without being aware of the allergen risk. To the best of the researchers’ knowledge, the present study is the first to analyze the expiration status of food allergen recalls in the UK.