The Government is being called on to tighten rules around food labelling.
Allergy New Zealand, a charity focused on promoting awareness and education around allergies, says the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) needs to take a tougher stance on the labelling of imported food.
The call comes after MPI issued a recall of various coconut milk products due to the presence of undeclared milk and milk products.
Nine products have so far been recalled, with Allergy NZ's chief executive, Mark Dixon, saying the recall is a reminder that the issue of undeclared allergens is a major concern for New Zealanders suffering from allergies.
The recall came after an investigation was launched following the death of a 10-year-old child in Australia in 2013. Last month it was revealed the boy's death was due to an allergic reaction to a "natural" coconut drink. The company responsible for importing the product, Narkena Pty Ltd, pleaded guilty to mislabelling it.
"Thankfully, there have been no reported cases of anaphylaxis in New Zealand due to a cow's milk-allergic child drinking a coconut milk product, believing it was safe. However that's not to say they haven't happened," says Mr Dixon. "That this recall took two years, and that imported products with undeclared allergens are available on the shelves in New Zealand is a major concern for allergy sufferers."
Food allergy affects one in 10 Kiwi children under the age of two, with cow's milk, eggs and peanuts the most common triggers, Allergy NZ says.
"Under the Australia New Zealand Food Code, cow's milk must be declared on food labels if present as an ingredient or processing aid. All the products recalled to date have been imported from Asian countries – China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia, specifically. We understand it is common for some manufacturers of coconut products in these countries to use cow's milk in processing to whiten or stabilise," says Mr Dixon.
"In New Zealand, 'may contain' statements are voluntary but often used when manufacturers are not sure if a food allergen is in the product through cross-contamination. This coconut milk saga points to failure in our regulatory environment. While it is up to importers to ensure products comply with New Zealand's labelling requirements, there are no proactive checks. Even a child's death, albeit in Australia, didn't trigger an investigation for two years."