Woolworths changes small detail on chicken label after boy hospitalised

Woolworths swiftly made the change following the mother's plea after her son's illness.

A mum's plea to make a food label "more obvious" following her 14-year-old son's "traumatic" allergic reaction has led Woolworths to take swift action.

The retail giant's Macro Free Range Australian Chicken Breast mini kebabs has a binding agent with wheat — one of the top eight allergens. While a warning is written on the back of the packaging, as recommended by Food Standards ANZ, now Woolworths displays it on the front in large writing.

Joanne Hagiliassis, who is the founder of charitable organisation Anaphylaxis Network Australia, admitted to making the mistake of not checking the back after assuming it was "equally as safe" as the Macro brand's chicken breast she usually gets.

A photo of a Melbourne boy being taken to hospital in an ambulance after an anaphylactic reaction to wheat in Woolworths chicken. A photo of him being wheeled in to hospital.
Following a Melbourne boy's allergic reaction, Woolworths has changed their label on the Macro Free Range Australian Chicken Breast mini kebabs. Source: Supplied

"When you live with food allergies you spend your whole life being very vigilant and trying to check labels to keep your child safe because the wrong ingredient can be fatal," she said to Yahoo News Australia.

"I'm one of these parents that check the label all the time trying to keep my son safe. We made the mistake of assuming this chicken breast was safe. We often buy chicken breast from that company and I assumed it was the same product, just put on kebab skewers.

"A lot of the time meat or chicken and other one-ingredient foods don't have an allergy label at all because they're one-ingredient, so I made the mistake to assume it had no label."

A photo of the front of the Macro Free Range Australian Chicken Breast before the change was made. A photo of the back which has the warning for wheat and gluten in small writing.
The packaging before the change was made, which shows the warning for wheat and gluten in small writing on the back, which is recommended by Food Safety Australia and New Zealand. Source: Woolworths

Melbourne boy goes into anaphylactic shock

On February 8, Ms Hagiliassis' son, who is allergic to wheat and nuts, went into anaphylactic shock after consuming the chicken kebabs — an incident the family is still "healing" from.

"The trauma of have an anaphylactic reaction, going to hospital, having an EpiPen and then another one in the ambulance stays with you for a while," the mum said.

Thankfully, the 14-year-old survived and was sent home after an overnight hospital stay, having now "developed a food aversion to chicken". "I encourage people to check the label every time, and if it could happen to me it could happen to anyone," the Anaphylaxis charity founder said.

A photo of the two EpiPen's the boy was given.
The 14-year-old boy had to have two EpiPen injections after going into anaphylaxis shock. Source: Supplied

Son not only one to have trouble with chicken product

After raising awareness about the experience, she claimed other members of the allergy or celiac community had also assumed the product was "safe". "Families came forward and told me they made the same mistake," she said. Members commented on their experiences on the Anaphylaxis Network Australia Facebook page.

"I feel that our food labelling is good in Australia," Ms Hagiliassis said. "I understand Woolworths did the minimum legally required thing to put the label on the back, but my concern is that this product was misleading."

Woolies responds with change to label

After the woman brought the matter to the attention of Woolworths, the national retailer altered the labelling in March, with a spokesperson explaining the changes to Yahoo News Australia.

A photo of the packaging after it was changed, which shows a warning on the front for wheat and gluten in large writing.
Woolworths made the label change in March. It now mentions the product contains wheat and gluten in big writing on the front. Source: Supplied

"We’ve taken the opportunity to update the packaging of our Macro Free Range Australian Chicken Breast mini kebabs," they said. "A new label, stating the product contains wheat and gluten, has been placed on the front of the packaging. This change has been in stores since March, 2023. We encourage customers to check product packaging for a full list of ingredients, before purchasing, to ensure they adhere to dietary requirements or preferences."

When asked how she feels about the change, Ms Hagiliassis said she is "relieved" the retailer took the matter "seriously".

"I'm glad they've taken the viewpoint that it could be potentially dangerous, or even fatal for someone who has that product," she said "I'm just lucky my son survived the reaction. Anaphylaxis can be fatal so it's very serious for us, and I'm glad they've done what I've asked them to do which was to make [the label] more obvious."

She also hopes the change will "prevent other families from having serious reactions".

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