Allergen labelling in UK under the spotlight

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food allergy, Allergy, Asthma

Allergen labelling comes under the spotlight in the UK, with a new Food Standards Agency (FSA) survey aiming to get insight into the relevance of current approaches.

The research, said the UK agency, is also aimed at gathering information on the levels of allergens present as a result of cross-contamination.

The survey will look at the different types of advisory labelling used on foods and will consider how different statements, such as ‘may contain nuts’ or ‘not suitable for someone with a nut allergy’, are used by consumers to assess the levels of risk. In addition, the agency is also hoping to gauge how widely FSA suggested best practice advisory labelling is being used within the food industry.

Ultimately, the results from this survey will feed into a much larger area of work including discussions on allergen management thresholds, a spokesperson for the FSA told FoodNavigator.com.

She said that the ultimate objective of the research would be “greater transparency and consistency in the use of allergen advisory labelling on pre-packed foods in the future.”

Label requirements

Since November 2005, when EU directive 2003/89/EC came into effect, food manufacturers in Europe have been required to list certain allergens on product labels, regardless of the amount of each in the finished product. However, while the directive is clear about the requirement to label allergens used as ingredients, it is not clear about precautionary labelling, when tiny traces of an allergen may end up in a final product due to cross- contamination during the production process.

Food manufacturers, alert to potential legal action if cross-contamination with an allergen should lead a consumer to suffer anaphylaxis, often use phrases such as 'may contain allergen X', ‘not suitable for someone with X allergy’, ​made on a line which also handles allergen X’, and ‘made in a factory that also handles allergen X'.

The FSA hopes that as a result of its investigation, in the future, such statements would only be used where the level of risk warrants it, “thereby protecting the safety of food allergic consumers and maximising food choice.”

Adverse reactions

The agency said it will investigate, through the survey, the presence and level of four major food allergens: - milk, cereals containing gluten, peanut and hazelnut.

“These allergens have been chosen due to the large number of incidents the FSA has received over the past four years, and because of their public health importance,”​ commented the FSA.

There is evidence, continued the agency, that the number of people who have adverse reactions to foods such as milk, tree nuts, and peanuts is increasing in the UK

“Research suggests that peanut and tree-nuts (such as hazelnut) are the most common cause of severe anaphylactic reactions and that only a minority of people who suffer allergic reactions to peanut and tree-nuts during childhood will outgrow their food allergy,” ​the FSA reports.

In addition, said the food safety body, around 1 per cent of people in the UK show intolerance to gluten and need to avoid foods containing gluten to prevent potentially serious health effects.

“It is not anticipated that this survey will have an impact on EU as a whole, as foods will only be sampled from the UK market,” ​the spokesperson for the FSA added.

Related topics: Regulation & Safety

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