Problems with allergen labelling in retail & food service

Regulations governing allergen/ingredient labelling on retail or pre-packed foods has been in place for some years but implementation is still far from perfect. New regulations are to be introduced for food sold loose or through the food service sector in 2014, but are unlikely to provide that much more security for the food allergic consumer.

Click here to go to the new food service regulations.

Allergy labelling for prepacked foods sold through retail outlets has now been in place for some years and does require that, within the ingredients list, any one of the major allergens (see below) used in the product are clearly listed. However, the operative word here is 'clearly'.

Although all retail packs do now have their ingredients printed on them, they can sometimes be printed in up to fifteen languages and all too often are in extremely small print and/or on shiny wrappers in a colours which are very similar to the background colour – and may even be tucked under the fold of the wrapper. As a result they are all but impossible to read.

Yet, the regulations (the relevant sections are quoted below) make it quite clear that ingredients labelling needs to be easily legible and that it needs to warn the prospective purchaser of any safety issues with the product – such as the presences of a major allergen. Not being able to read a label easily, or being misled by the packaging into believing that a product is safe when it is not, can have tragic consequences – such as the death of seven-year-old Deja Hay in 2008.

(Deja, his mother and his sister were all allergic to cow's milk. One hot day, Deja's mother bought a carton of what she believed was pineapple and coconut juice. In fact the juice also contained cow's milk but the picture on the front of the pack was of pineapples and coconuts and the cow's milk was only mentioned in tiny writing on the side of the pack, English being only one of the four languages in which it was printed. Deja drank the 'juice' and collapsed and died within half an hour.)

Food labelling legislation UK 1996
38 (1) The particulars with which a food is required to be marked and labeled....... shall be easy to understand, clearly legible and indelible and, when a food is sold to the ultimate consumer, the said particulars shall be marked in a conspicuous place in such a way as to be easily visible......not in any way hidden, obscured or interrupted by any other written or pictorial matter.....

General food regulation 178/2002 EC
Article 14. Food safety requirements:
3. In determining whether any food is unsafe, regard shall be had:.....
(b) to the information provided to the consumer including information on the label..... concerning the avoidance of specific adverse health effects......
Article 16. Presentation.........the information which is made available through whatever medium shall not mislead consumers.

Food Information Regulation 1169/2011
Article 13 - Presentation of mandatory particulars
1. .......mandatory food information (eg major allergens) shall be marked in a conspicuous place in such a way as to be be easily visible, clearly legible....and not in way way hidden or obscured .... by any other written or pictorial matter.......


Food sold loose or through food service

The regulations governing packaged food are, finally, going to be extended to cover food sold loose or through the food service industry in 2014. But, while declaring the presence of an allergen on a pack is relatively easy, doing so when there are no packs is a great deal more difficult. However, the regulators have finally bitten the bullet and in early November DEFRA sent out the proposed regulations for 'consultation'.

The relevant part of the document is section 5:

Foods that are not prepacked etc. containing an allergenic substance or product etc.
5.—(1) A food business operator who offers for sale a relevant food to which this regulation applies may provide the particulars specified in Article 9(1)(c) in relation to that food in any manner that they choose, including, subject to paragraph (3), orally.

(2) This regulation applies to a relevant food that is offered for sale to the final consumer or to a mass caterer otherwise than by means of distance communication and that is—
(a) not prepacked;
(b) packed on the operator's premises at the consumer's request; or
(c) prepacked for direct sale.

(3) Where a food business operator intends to provide the particulars specified in Article 9(1)(c) relating to a relevant food orally, they must indicate that details of the Annex II substance or product used as an ingredient or processing aid in the manufacture or preparation of the food, or derived from such a substance or product, can be obtained by asking a member of staff.

(4) The indication mentioned in paragraph (3) must be given—
(a) on a label attached to the food; or
(b) on a notice, menu, ticket or label that is readily discernible by an intending purchaser at the place where they choose that food.

(5) In relation to a relevant food to which this regulation applies, the Article 9(1)(c) particulars provided by a food business operator must be provided with a clear reference to the name of the substance or product listed in Annex II.

(6) In this regulation "relevant food" means a food in which an ingredient or processing aid listed in Annex II, or derived from a substance or product listed in Annex II, has been used in its manufacture or preparation and that is still present in the finished product (even if in an altered form).

In layman's language this means:

1. Anyone selling food that is not pre-packed in a retail pack e.g. a caterer, restaurant, pub, café, market stall etc etc – must provide information about the 'major' allergens (see below) in the food that they are selling.

2. They can do so:
a. Orally - by telling you about it
b. Or any other way they want to – presumably by printing it on an information sheet or a menu, putting it on their website (inconvenient when you are already trying to order your meal), developing an app......?

The problem with this provision is 2a. Although the establishment will be obliged to 'tell' the consumer about any allergens in any of their dishes – and are even obliged to put up a notice telling customers that they have to tell them – they can do this 'orally' eg the customer has to ask the 'wait-person' who will tell them about the ingredients in that dish.

But, because of the nature of the catering trade, serving staff are 95% foreign (often with a poor grasp of English), temporary and poorly trained in basic food safety let alone the complexities of allergy. Even if they are willing, the chances of them actually getting the facts about allergens in the foods they are serving right are often extremely small.

So, although it is certainly desirable that allergen information on non-pre-packed food should have to be available, from the allergy sufferer's point of view, it would be far better if the outlet concerned had to provide them with a printed list of ingredients, highlighting the major allergens, on request – not just 'tell them' about the allergens.

Commenting on proposed regulations

Since the regulations are currently out for consultation, it would be good if as many people as possible could draw this to the attention of the regulators. We would suggest the following:

Please welcome the arrival of the regulations but ask the regulators to tighten up No. 5 (1) to read:

A food business operator who offers for sale a relevant food to which this regulation applies should provide the particulars specified in Article 9(1)(c) in relation to that food in a written format that allows the customer to study the ingredients of the food product and be sure that the information about allergens that they are being given is reliable. This information should NOT be conveyed orally.

The full text of the consultation is to be found on the DEFRA site here, more general information on the DEFRA site here, where you will also find the address for responses if you wish to write rather than email; if you wish to email, do so to
You might wish to quote this reference to make sure that your comment is attached to the right consultation!
Consultation on Food Information Regulations (FIR) 2013 – Draft SI (November 2012)

The major allergens (for the full list see the FSA website here)
Cereals containing gluten
Sesame seeds
Sulphur dioxide

First published November 2012

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