Asking the pro's

I know how important it is to feel supported by expert guidance. Read the latest Q&A's opposite.

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Sue Hattersley from the Food Standards Agency was kind enough to clarify current food labelling laws.

Sue Hattersley
– Head of Food Allergy Branch (Food Standards Agency)

  • Q: What are the current labelling laws food producers have to follow when 14 of the top recognised allergens have been used in their products? (Peanuts, tree nuts, milk, soya, egg, gluten-containing cereals (wheat, rye and barley), fish, sesame, crustaceans, molluscs, celery, sulphites, lupin and mustard).
  • Current legislation means that these 14 allergenic foods have to be clearly declared on the label when they are used in foods sold pre-packed (such as packets, tins etc). This declaration must use the name of the food as set out in the legislation to make it easier for consumers to recognise the ingredients they need to avoid: so casein has to be labelled as ‘casein (milk)’, tofu as ‘tofu (soya)’ and tahini as ‘tahini (sesame’). In addition, it is the cereal that has to be labelled (such as wheat, barley or rye) rather than gluten. Some food producers currently also add Allergy Advice statements, such as ‘Contains, egg, nuts, gluten’ but these are not a legal requirement and not all businesses use them, so anyone with an allergy should always check the ingredients list.
  • Q: Are there new procedures the FSA are looking into to help make it easier for consumers to spot allergens on labels?
  • We know that it can be hard for consumers to pick out the allergenic ingredients in a long or complex ingredients list, so new European legislation that will come into effect in December 2014 will mean that these ingredients will have to be highlighted in the ingredients list, for example by using bold, a different font or different colours. At the same time, the use of the ‘Contains X’ allergy advice statements will no longer be allowed. We know that some consumers have come to rely on these allergy statements but these have never been compulsory and there can be confusion between the information in the statement and in the ingredients list. In future, consumers will only need to look for the information in one place – the ingredients list - and this will be the same for foods sold all across the EU countries.
  • Q: Many parents feel food producers protect themselves by liberally adding the ‘may contain’ statement to their labels. Is there anything the FSA are enforcing to avoid or decrease the use of this?
  • It is important that people with food allergies are told when there is a real risk that a food may have come into contact with a food allergen. Food production environments can be very complex with lots of different products being made in the same factory on the same production lines and sometimes it is not possible to keep everything completely separate.

    The Agency produced best practice guidance on the management of food allergens in 2006 to help businesses look at where these risks can arise and how they can be controlled. Since then the Agency has been involved in a large programme of work internationally to develop allergen management thresholds that can be used by businesses when assessing whether or not allergen warning labelling (such as ‘May Contain’) is needed. We hope that the outcomes of this work will be published in the coming months and that use of these management thresholds will lead to much more consistency between businesses when deciding whether or not to use these warnings. It will also increase the choices available to allergic consumers.
  • Q: Homemade street food and famers markets are becoming increasingly popular. What are the allergen laws for non pre-packed foodstuffs?
  • Currently there is no specific legislation requiring allergen information to be provided for foods sold unpackaged, such as on market stalls, in sandwich bars, deli counters or in catering.  This is because in these situations, it should be possible for the consumer to talk directly to the person who has made the food and find out what ingredients have been used.

    However from December 2014 there will be new European legislation that will mean that businesses selling unpackaged foods will have to give allergen information – they will no longer be able to say that they do not know whether or not an allergenic ingredient has been used. This new law is currently being put in place and guidance is being produced for these types of food businesses to help them understand and meet these new obligations.
  • Q: Do the FSA offer any hands-on allergy guidance or training for food suppliers in direct contact with the public, ensuring they can answer their questions correctly? E.g. schools, workforce canteens, restaurants, deli counters, street food stalls, etc.
  • The Agency produced best practice guidance in 2008 for food businesses providing unpackaged foods, to help them understand the needs of their food allergic customers and this is freely available from our website. We have also produced guidance and a fact sheet for caterers explaining the rules on making gluten claims. The Agency has already developed an online e-learning module on food allergy that is freely available to any food producer or caterer to help them understand about food allergy, the rules on labelling and how to manage food allergens. We will be updating this and our other advice to cover the new EU food labelling rules shortly.
  • Q: Travelling abroad can be difficult for many parents of children with food allergies. Are the UK labelling laws applicable other to areas within the EU as well as globally?
  • The rules on labelling of allergenic ingredients in other EU countries are the same as those in the UK. There are also rules on labelling of allergenic ingredients in pre-packed foods in a number of other countries outside the EU, such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and in Japan. But people should be aware that whilst these countries have similar requirements to label specified allergenic ingredients, the lists of allergens are not always the same as the EU list. So in the USA, there are only 9 foods on the list (peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, soya, sulphites and wheat) and in Japan, the list includes buckwheat but does not include tree nuts. There are a number of websites that offer ‘chef cards’ in a variety of languages to help people when travelling.
  • February 2013
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