According to a review published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy, the chance of being murdered is 11 in a million in any one year in Europe, and the chance of dying of any accidental cause is 324 in a million. Life is somewhat riskier in the United States, where the chance of being murdered rises to 61 in a million each year, and 399 in a million for accidental death.
A team of researchers from Imperial College London, led by Dr Robert Boyle of the Department of Medicine, looked at data on food allergy fatalities from 13 studies worldwide. They found that for a person with a food allergy, the chance of dying from anaphylaxis each year is 1.81 in a million, although the figure is slightly higher for those aged under 19, at 3.25 in a million – still about a third the risk of being murdered.
Boyle said: "We don't want to belittle the concerns of people with food allergies or their families, and of course people should continue to take reasonable precautions. That said, we want to reassure them that having a food allergy makes a very small difference to someone's overall risk of death.”
Riskiest foods in Europe
Professor Clare Mills from Manchester University in the UK, who was not involved in the study, explained that the list of allergens that must be labelled was developed by expert opinion, and modified by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
“The foods that people are allergic to vary around the world, which is why we have things like mustard and celery on there in Europe,” she said, adding that allergen labelling is not just about fatalities.
Food manufacturers must label 14 allergens under EU law – peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, mustard, eggs, lupin, milk, fish, gluten-containing cereals, sesame, celery, sulphur dioxide, molluscs and crustaceans. For products that do not intentionally contain these as ingredients, current industry best practice is simply to take all necessary precautions to avoid cross contamination and flag up the possibility of allergens' unintentional presence.
The whole burden
“It’s about the risks of having severe reactions, which might not result in someone dying, but might result in them being hospitalised or having to take rescue medication,” said Mills.
“…The labels are there to help people avoid foods and have an improved quality of life. Fear of fatalities is part of that, but you have to look at the whole burden.”
Mills pointed out that the labelling directive also deals with gluten, which must be avoided by those with coeliac disease over their entire lifetime, not because of a risk of death if it is consumed, but to avoid some “pretty unpleasant” gastrointestinal symptoms that can have serious health consequences.
The full study on the incidence of fatal food anaphylaxis is available online here.