Food Allergen Labelling … All Change in December
13th December 2014 – the date by which all food and drink providers must comply with EU Food Information for Consumers (EU FIC) Regulation No. 1169/2011 –
Before we look at the new legislation, it might help us to first consider what it does not address, as this has been a source of confusion.
It does not address ‘free from’ labelling. There is no regulation for ‘free from’ messaging on food products, with the sole current exception of ‘gluten free’, which is covered under a different EU Regulation – No. 41/2009. You can read more about it at here.
It does not address ‘may contain’ labelling. There is no regulation for ‘may contain’ labelling – variously referred to as ‘defensive’, ‘alibi’, advisory or precautionary labelling – although there is some guidance on its use, which is voluntary, provided by the Food Standards Agency. You can read that guidance here.
It does address ‘does contain’ labelling. In essence, product ingredients and their sources.
In other words, the regulation concerns what is definitely in the product – not what the product may be inadvertently contaminated with, nor what is absent from the product.
The 14 food allergens
Even though all ingredients in a food product must be declared in a list of ingredients, it is not always clear or explicit what the source of some derived ingredients might be.
In some cases, the manufacturer is obliged to tell you the source. This is the case when the source is one of the 14 key food allergens – chosen because they are deemed to be the most commonly or seriously problematic to those with allergies or intolerances. With very few exceptions, these must always appear on food labels when they have been used to derive an ingredient.
For example, because ‘barley’ is on the list of food allergens as one of the gluten-containing cereals, a manufacturer is not permitted to list just “malt extract” in the ingredients if barley is used to produce the malt extract. Instead, “barley malt extract” must be specified.
On the other hand, ‘sugar’ may appear without further description. Is it cane sugar or is it beet sugar? Because neither beet nor cane are among the 14 key allergens, the manufacturer need not tell you which of the two it is – although in practice might well do so.
The complete list for which this rule applies is as follows:
This list of 14 key allegens is not new and is not changing – and neither is the requirement for them to appear in ingredients lists.
However, the way these allergens will appear in the ingredients lists is changing. In fact, it has been in the process of changing for some time, as we have been in a three-year transition period since December 2011, when the new EU FIC Regulation No. 1169/2011 first came into effect.
Now, from December 13th 2014, that three-year period is over, and any food products going onto our supermarket shelves must be labelled according to the Regulation – although products with a long shelf-life, still labelled according to the previous regulations, may be seen for some months, as manufacturers are permitted to use up stocks of packaging with old-style labelling on it.
Highlighting of Allergens
The significant change is that the 14 food allergens must now be highlighted in some way in the list of ingredients – so that they stand out more prominently from other ingredients, enabling those with allergies to spot them more easily.
In practice, most manufacturers are likely to use bold as a means of highlighting key allergens, but other methods are permitted – such as underlining or CAPITALS or by the use of other highlighting methods such as colour, or a combination of methods.
In the examples below, only bold will be used.
Cereal Grains Containing Gluten
It is the name of the grain which must be given and highlighted in the list of ingredients, not the word ‘gluten’ – which may or may not appear alongside the cereal grain.
If the ingredient’s name includes the name of the cereal, just the cereal will be highlighted.
Examples: either “rye flour” or “rye flour (gluten)”
If the name of the ingredient does not include the cereal’s name, it should be supplied alongside.
Examples: “cous cous (wheat)” and “wheat semolina”
The word gluten is only compulsory when gluten itself is an ingredient. In this case, the grain from which it is derived must be provided and highlighted.
Examples: “gluten (barley)” or “barley gluten”
A welcome clarification concerns the presence of the more unusual gluten-containing grains, such as Khorosan, emmer or spelt, which are forms of wheat, and must declare as much.
Examples: “spelt (wheat) flour” and “Khorosan wheat”
For the gluten sensitive, not every instance of a highlighted grain implies a product will necessarily be unsafe. In such cases, the highlighting of the gluten-containing grain acts as a warning to those with food allergies to those grains – and does not necessarily mean a coeliac should avoid the product, which may well carry a ‘gluten free’ label and be suitable for them. (If you are in doubt, consult Coeliac UK’s annual Food and Drink Directory or call the charity or the manufacturer for guidance.)
Examples: “gluten-free oat flakes” and “barley malt extract” and “Codex wheat starch”
The word ‘fish’ in brackets, and highlighted, should be given after the name of the fish, although there is an option to highlight the whole ingredient if the word fish forms a part of the fish’s name.
Examples: “swordfish” or “swordfish (fish)” and “cod (fish)”
The word ‘milk’ does not necessarily have to appear if a milk product such as cheese, cream, yogurt or butter is an ingredient, although these ingredients will need to be highlighted in such a case. This is because, legally, products such as cream, butter, cheese and yoghurt can only be made from animal milks.
Examples: “butter (milk)” or “butter”.
It is mandatory, however, when the reference is to a less familiar dairy product or ingredient.
Examples: “lactose (milk)” and “Quark (milk)” and “whey (milk)” and “ghee (milk)”
The term ‘milk’ can only be used for cows’ milk, and milk from any other animal has to specify which animal it is from. (There is high cross-reactivity between all animal milks: you are likely to be allergic to all if allergic to one. Furthermore, all contain lactose.)
Remember, if you are milk allergic or intolerant, it is not sufficiently secure to merely look for the highlighted word ‘milk’ in a list of ingredients. Although in practice it may be uncommon, it is possible that you will only see ‘yoghurt’, ‘cream’, ‘cheese’ or ‘butter’ in an ingredients list highlighted, to alert you to the presence of milk.
The full name of the tree nut must be highlighted.
Example: “Brazil nut” (not “Brazil nut”)
The only nut whose full name does not incorporate the word ‘nut’ is almond – so it is vital that those avoiding this nut be aware to specifically look out for it, and not merely scan for the word / part-word ‘nut’.
Remember, other types of nuts, such as shea, and foods whose names suggest they may be nuts but are in fact not nuts, such as pine nuts, coconut and chestnuts – are not included in the group of tree nuts under the regulation, although they can occasionally cause allergic reactions.
Peanuts are occasionally referred to as ‘groundnuts’ or ‘monkey nuts’, but the word ‘peanuts’ must be used on labelling, and should be highlighted.
Other allergens are generally more straightforward, especially when they appear as ‘whole’ ingredients – such as egg (from all birds) or celery, which will be merely listed and highlighted as normal.
The word ‘crustacean’ and ‘mollusc’ should appear after any such ingredient.
Examples: “octopus (mollusc)” and “shrimp (crustaceans)”
The method of highlighting the allergen in brackets after a particular ingredient will be common in other situations too, and is especially reassuring in the case of those unusual ingredients which may not be commonly known to be derived from one of the 14 allergens.
Examples: “tahini (sesame)” and “edamame (soya)”
‘Contains’ statements / Allergen Alert Boxes
The new regulation stipulates that the allergen information should only appear once on food products – that is, in the ingredients list.
As a consequence, ‘contains’ statements or allergen alert boxes or warnings, which had been used by many manufacturers to summarise which of the key 14 allergens were included in the product, have effectively been banned from most products.
The exceptions are:
1. Single-ingredient products where a list of ingredients is not required. Irrespective of whether or not obvious by observation, unless it is obvious from the name of the product itself – as in a carton of milk called “Semi-Skimmed Milk”, for example – a manufacturer can make a simple ‘contains’ statement.
Example: “contains fish” – on some pre-packed cod fillets.
2. Alcoholic beverages above 1.2% which are not obliged to carry an ingredients list. If they do not, but do contain an allergen, you may see a contains statement.
Example: “contains barley” – you are only likely to see this on beers, possibly including gluten-free beers, as barley used for malt whisky is exempt under labelling legislation.
Example: “contains sulphites” – in wines, for example, where they are are used as preservatives
Example: “contains milk” or “contains egg” – again in wines, usually, where they both can be used as fining agents, and must be declared if found at 0.25mg/litre or above.
Allergy advice statements
Manufacturers who previously used ‘contains’ statements or allergen boxes are expected to replace them with allergen advice statements. They remain voluntary, however. They will consist of statements directing consumers to the list of ingredients, and explain the method of highlighting which has been chosen.
* European Union’s Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council.
First published December 2014