In an effort to help the growing number of consumers with allergies to identify ingredients they need to avoid, last year Europe cleared a new directive - 2003/89/EC (amending Directive 2000/13/EC) - that requires food manufacturers to list 12 potentially allergic ingredients, and their derivatives.
The new rules, to enter into force in late November this year, apply to cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, eggs, peanuts, soy, milk and dairy products, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.
"Non-allergenic derivatives should not have to be labelled. Refined soya oil, for example, is not allergenic and labelling it as a food allergen will not be preferential for the food manufacturer," Michael Hunt, manager food law and labelling at the UK industry body, the Food and Drink Federation tells FoodNavigator.com.
Not preferential because the allergen wary consumer will avoid the product believing it really contains a potentially harmful ingredient when in fact it is innocuous. And marking lost lost sales for both the manufacturer and retailer.
"Allergy consumer groups in the UK agreed with us that the labelling of non-allergenic derivatives would only confuse consumers," added Hunt.
As such, the European food industry and consumer groups have succeeded in their aim for an amendment to the 'Annex IIIa' listing (the list of the 12 ingredients and products thereof affected by the directive).
The food industry and implicated parties have until the 25 August to demonstrate to the European Commission the non-allergenicity of allergen derivatives.
"By the end of the year Brussels should have come up with a provisional list, and in three years time this will finally be confirmed," explained Hunt.
According to the FDF representative food makers are unlikely to look to source alternative ingredients for their formulations because for the most part, the ingredients are listed already.
" The list of ingredients to which the new directive applies is enormous, and it would be a never-ending task to replace all the ingredients.
In addition, if a manufacturer uses milk protein, they are not going to swap for another source, because the ingredient is already, anyway, labelled on the food product. The company has no need to look for an alternative ingredient."
The only circumstance when a manufacturer might want to replace an ingredient in a food or beverage formulation is if the derivative is considered an allergen, and the maker has no desire to label the food product as such, simply because of the derivative. If an alternative exists, they are likely to source it and avoid needless labelling that could deter a consumer purchase.
According to European allergy associations 8 per cent of children and 3 per cent of adults are affected in Europe by food allergies or food intolerance, with new allergens emerging on a regular basis. Figures that initially pushed Brussels to come up with a new food code for the consumer.
In addition to the labelling of specific food allergens, the new directive puts an end to the '25 per cent rule', whereby individual ingredients of a compound ingredient make up less than 25 per cent of the finished product currently do not have to be listed.
"Many companies have already stopped using the 25 per cent rule and for some time have labelled compound ingredients, so they are prepared this aspect of the new rules," commented Hunt.
The '25 per cent' rule, introduced into Community legislation more than 20 years ago in order to avoid inordinately long lists of ingredients, was based on the principle that the consumer knows the composition of compound ingredients and can therefore deduce, for example, that jam added to biscuits is prepared with fruit and sugar.
Since this time, food production has become more and more complex, and people eat a lot more processed foods. Over the past few years, consumers have repeatedly expressed the wish to be better informed about the foodstuffs they purchase, and specifically about their composition, even if full ingredient labelling will inevitably make ingredient lists longer. Recent food safety scares have clearly reinforced this need for information.
Under the new rules, with the exception of certain minor derogations relating to compound ingredients made up of less than 2 per cent of the finished products, all ingredients will need to be listed. The derogations, which will not apply to the listed allergens, or to additives, are as follows: compound ingredients whose composition is defined in EU law (for example, jam and chocolate) need not list their ingredients.
Herbs and spices used in mixtures, need not be listed individually and ingredients will not have to be listed in descending order by ingoing weight.,
The presence of similar or 'mutually substitutable ingredients' could be indicated by use of "contains....and/or...".
The rules enter into force on 25 November this year, and for which, says Hunt, the UK food industry is ready for compliance. Food manufacturers and retailers have one full year to get used to and comply with the law, but from 25 November 2005 all products sold on the market that are not in full compliance of the directive will be prohibited. Those labelled prior to this date may be sold while stocks last.