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Industry involvement needed for clearer allergen labelling guidance

Food and drink businesses should work together with regulators to improve current guidelines on allergen labelling, an expert has said.

Food and drink businesses should work together with regulators to improve current guidelines on allergen labelling, an expert has said.

It follows a recent report from the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) (20 pages. 536 KB) where concerns were raised about the ongoing violations of food composition labelling requirements in respect of allergens, despite recent updates on labelling guidance. The report found that incidents relating to undeclared or incorrectly declared allergens have returned to pre-pandemic levels following a decline in cases.

The serious consequences of this are evident in cases recently hitting the headlines. This includes the death of a 25-year-old British woman who died from anaphylactic shock after consuming a cookie containing peanuts despite its labelling failing to mention the nut as an ingredient. Órla Baxendale ate the snack from a grocery store chain in north-eastern America, causing a severe allergic reaction. An EpiPen was unable to save her.

The FSA published an update to food and precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) guidance in September 2023, providing clarification over the use of the so-called “may contain” label by food producers. Food safety expert Zoe Betts said the updates follow “a need for increased clarity and consistency,” with research finding that small and medium sized businesses selling prepacked foods are often unsure of how and when to use PAL.

“There are currently issues with under-labelling as well as over-labelling with some food producers remaining unclear about which ingredients should be highlighted as allergens,” Betts added.

Under-labelling can result in incidents such as the Baxendale case, with consumers eating products that may cause harm without knowing they are doing so. Examples of over-labelling include “oats” being legally referred to as “gluten containing cereal.” This means oats must also be emphasised on packaging as an allergen despite some being gluten-free and therefore safe for someone with a gluten intolerance. Over-labelling can also make the allergen issues less clear on packaging and thereby reduce food choices for consumers with allergies who are fearful of suffering adverse effects.

“Unfortunately, the issues in the current regulatory framework stem from the lack of scientific understanding. Further scientific research is required to determine exactly what changes to guidance should look like. At the moment, both over-labelling and under-labelling cause issues. We need further research to develop understanding of things like prevalence and severity of allergies in order to develop a labelling system that achieves a balance,” said Fiona Cameron, regulatory law expert at Pinsent Masons.

The experts said that industry involvement is paramount, with business consultation as well as regular checks by authorities and businesses critical for the sought after balance to be struck. “For industry, any change must be properly thought through so that a proportionate response is provided, and we don’t simply swap one problem for another. The findings also reveal some potentially serious public safety issues relating to allergen declarations, reinforcing the continued need for regular checks by local authorities and businesses as part of routine testing and enforcement,” said Betts.

The Food and Drink Federation is producing guidance on the root cause analysis of allergen incidents, expected to be published this summer.

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