Frances Dale investigates
Allergen labeling is intended to make life, and especially shopping, easier for allergic people but sadly, the new Europe-wide allergy labeling regulations which become mandatory in December 2014, do not appear to do so. They will, it is true, apply throughout Europe and that is certainly a good thing for allergic travellers, but in all other respects, far from improving the shopping experience for allergic shoppers, they may well make it worse.
To take the provisions in the order in which they are set out in the Food Standards Agency's new (August 2013) brochure, Advice on Food Allergen Labelling:
• Under the new rules, allergens will be emphasised on the label. Food businesses can choose what method they want to use to emphasise these, for example, by listing them in bold.... Other types of emphasis may be used as well, such as italics and underlined or highlighted words.
It is, obviously, a good idea for food allergens to be emphasised on the label but why are food companies be given a choice as to how they do so?
1. Surely it would be clearer and easier for the consumer to recognise the allergens if the emphasis was always in bold – or always highlighted? Then they know what to look for.
2. Would it not also be easier for the manufacturer if there was one standard way of emphasising the allergens to which everyone adhered all of the time?
3. Whereas bolding or highlighting does stand out well on pack, italics are not so effective and it would be easy to miss a small italicised allergen ('nuts' or even 'milk') if it appeared in a long list of ingredients.
• Some companies may also emphasise the whole word for example: wheat flour or use the words 'from milk' after listing the ingredient cream.
Why the option? Either manufacturers need to emphasise the allergic ingredient or they do not. The option just opens the door to confusion on the part of the consumer – and, indeed the manufacturer.
• The new rules will mean that a 'contains x' allergen statement can no longer be provided for food alongside an ingredients list.
1. Reading ingredients lists is a slow frustrating task and requires the shopper's full attention if they are not going to miss something. (How easy is that with one or two toddlers in tow?)
Allergic shoppers can take twice as long to do their weekly shop than a non-allergic shopper who does not have to scrutinise every label. Having a box which flagged up that the dish contained an allergen speeded up the process as, if that was one of their allergens, they did not need to investigate any further.
2. If the shopper's grasp of the language is poor, their understanding of allergy is limited or they are in a hurry, they may not read the ingredients list properly and may miss an allergen. If it had been flagged up on the pack this might not happen.
Sue Hattersley, head of food allergy at the FSA, points out that this allergen box was never mandatory and was not always accurate. However, since it is seen as very helpful by most allergic people, rather than axing it, would it not have been better to make it mandatory and ensure that it was accurate? The FSA expects manufacturers to get the ingredients lists right, so why would they not expect them to get the allergen box right?
• Fourteen major allergens will be highlighted on the label within the ingredients list. They are:
Yes, these are fine – except for 'milk'.
Whose milk? Cow's, goat's, sheep? And what about cream, yogurt, ice cream which may not contain 'milk' as such? The FSA themselves suggest that manufacturers may want to 'use the words 'from milk' after listing the ingredient cream'. What happens if they don't 'want to use' those words – is everyone expected to just know that 'cream' contains milk?
Why is this not 'dairy products' which covers everything that is made of, or could contain, milk products and therefore be hazardous for anyone with a milk allergy?
The guidance then goes on to repeat the information about emphasising the allergens:
• Food businesses can choose what method they want to use to emphasise these 14 allergens on their product labels. For example, this could be done by listing them in bold, contrasting colours and underlining.
If only one means of emphasis was used (bold, for example) this extra complicated wordage (which may be fine on a large pack but takes up valuable space on a small one) would not be necessary as everyone would know that 'bold' meant an allergen, and that was that.
• Information about allergenic ingredients will be located in a single place, i.e. the ingredients list. This means that the voluntary use of the current types of allergy boxes (such as: 'Contains nuts') that provide a short cut to allergen information also given in the ingredients list, will no longer be allowed.
There is nothing wrong with all allergen information being listed in one place – but why should that mean that there should only be an ingredients listing? Why should the 'Contains nuts' allergen box not appear next to the ingredients list thereby making it even clearer to the nut-allergic consumer that they should not buy/eat this product?
• Where allergy advice statements are used on new labels, the statements will direct consumers back to the ingredients list to obtain information on allergens. However, this isn't compulsory, so if there isn't an advice statement on the label, don't assume the product is free from the food or ingredient you are sensitive to. Always check the ingredients.
Given that 'allergy advice' boxes have already been banned this seems to make little sense and to yet further confuse the issue.
• 'May contain' warnings.
Very disappointingly, no effort at all has been made to improve the current extremely vague and effectively useless 'may contain' warnings, one of the most frustrating aspects of shopping for allergic people.
Despite the admirable efforts made by some manufacturers to quantify the level of risk posed by a product (contains x; made in a factory where x is also used; cannot guarantee that ingredients are x free etc) the regulators have entirely side stepped the issue.
These regulations were an ideal opportunity to standardise reasonable warnings (such as those above) which allowed allergic consumers to assess the level of risk posed by a product and make an informed decision as to whether they would buy/eat the product. If more detailed and informative information about the level of risk had also been made compulsory, and thereby, universal, shopping for those with allergies would not only have become much easier, but very much safer.
• The voluntary 'Contains gluten' statements that some businesses currently use will be phased out. You will need to look for the cereals containing gluten. For example wheat, rye, and barley will be emphasised within the ingredients list.
1. As with the allergen warning boxes, which have also been 'phased out', the 'contains gluten' boxes were very helpful for allergic/coeliac shoppers as they saved them having to 'go any further' with that product. Without them they will have to read the full ingredients lists.
2. Will all gluten-allergic/coeliac shoppers know which cereals contain gluten? Most will recognise wheat but if their English, eyesight or allergy awareness is poor, will they recognise barley, rye, cousous or modified starch as being gluten-bearing, even if they are 'emphasised' within the ingredients list? And will manufacturers actually manage to 'emphasise' couscous or modified starch? There would be appear to be far more room for error here than with a simple 'contains gluten' box.
Allergy is a complex and very confusing subject. What everyone - consumers, retailers and manufacturers sought from the new regulations was clarity. Sadly, all they appear to have delivered is further obfuscation.
For more on these regulations see the FoodsMatter blog - 14th September.
For the Food Standards Agency's response see here. 24th September