Call for greater clarity over allergen labelling

The CIEH and TiFSiP are calling for greater consistency on allergen labelling after caterers and allergen sufferers have complained of confusion when labels state a product ‘may contain’ an allergen.

A joint white paper published this week, Improving the useof ‘may contain’ allergen statements warns not only do businesses use over 40 different types of precautionary labels but no one is clear what they mean and there is a suspicion that companies are using the labels solely as a due diligence defence.

Caterers and restaurants have warned of total confusion over what labels to put on a product that is made from multiple ingredients when each ingredient has a ‘may contain’ label.

‘Using precautionary allergen statements correctly is complicated, especially in a food service context,’ said Eoghan Daly, the report author and TiFSiP’s policy and technical advisor. ‘It is important that statements are clear consistent and easy to understand.’

Consumers suffering from foods allergen say they feel precautionary warnings are being overused and so are being ignored or mistrusted making them pointless and giving a false impression as to the level of risk.

They also warn that ignoring ‘may contain’ statements runs the risk of providing false assurance to allergen sufferers.

Since the Food Information Regulations came into force on 13 December 2014 all food business have been required to provide accurate information on allergenic ingredients in all types of food. The legislation covers 14 specific allergens ranging from nuts and cereals to sulphur dioxide and sulphites.

Food companies also have the option to voluntarily provide a precautionary allergen statement. ‘The problem is that deciding when you should use a “may contain” statement is not at all straight forward,” said Mr Daly.

There are currently around 40 different ways to express that a product may contain an allergen. Declarations range from ‘may contain traces of’ to ‘Produced on lines handling’ or ‘Manufactured in a facility where (allergen name) are present’.

It is noted that consumers will interpret statements differently which may lead to inadvertent risk taking.

The white paper suggests that one way to improve the use of ‘may contain’ statements is for caterers and restaurants to confirm with their own suppliers on what basis they are using the precautionary label, for example is the allergen on site or is it handled on the same production line?

The report also calls for a limit to the wording on precautionary labelling along with a consumer education campaign as to what they mean. Another recommendation is for the introduction of a threshold level for the declaration of allergen contamination.

A similar system has been introduced in Australia and New Zealand, which the report claims has been successful. Ongoing discussions at EU level setting out a reference dose for precautionary labelling as so far made little progress.

The report is based on an expert round table held with stakeholders in June this year. The paper does not address ‘gluten free’ statements that maybe addressed in a future work programme.



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