Out-Law News 2 min. read

UK regulator clarifies ‘may contain’ food allergen labelling requirements

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The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has updated its guidance on food allergen labelling and information requirements, providing important clarifications over the use of the so-called ‘may contain’ label by food producers and retailers.

Food safety expert Zoe Betts of Pinsent Masons said that the FSA’s updates on precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) highlighted a need for increased clarity and consistency in its use.

“PAL has been on the FSA’s radar for some time now, with concern growing that increasing use of the ‘may contain’ term can devalue the information provided to consumers,” said Betts. “Meanwhile, research indicated that small and medium sized food businesses selling prepacked foods can be unsure of how and when to apply PAL.”

Whilst the use of PAL statements is voluntary, the FSA expects these to be used only if there is an unavoidable risk of allergen contamination and that they must be accurate and not misleading. According to Betts, the updated guidance aims to set out proportionate and standardised processes for assessing the risk of cross-contamination. “The guidance supports improving and standardising allergen information within supply chains to help ensure that the communication of allergen cross-contact risk to customers is as accurate as possible,” she said.

Under the new guidance, food businesses should specify which of the 14 major allergens their PAL refers to. For example, specific statements of ‘may contain peanuts’ or ‘may contain tree nuts’ should be used rather than the generic claims of ‘may contain nuts’. PAL should only be applied following a risk assessment, ensuring that consumer safety and choice are not unnecessarily affected.

The guidance also recommends that PAL should not be applied for the same allergen that products are also claiming to be ‘free from’. This means when a product is labelled ‘dairy free’, it should not be labelled with a ‘may contain milk’ statement.

A new standard has been added to the guidance on the use of PAL in combination with a vegan label. The FSA explained that a ‘vegan’ label communicates different information to a ‘free-from’ claim, which is food safety information aimed at different consumer groups.

The PAL updates only apply to prepacked foods. 

Other new recommendations by the FSA include clarification that food business operators should provide clear information on the prepacked food label or on the website of the food manufacturer stating how they may be contacted, such as an email or telephone number. This recommendation aims  to ensure that consumers can seek further clarification or information easily.

In addition, whilst the FSA does not advise ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ (NGCI) statements be used, should food businesses continue to employ them the food business needs to make clear that the meals are not suitable for people with coeliac disease unless they can be prepared to meet the gluten free standard, which is less than 20mg/kg.

The latest updates have been introduced following the FSA’s consultation on PAL and NGCI statements that closed on 22 May. They apply to food businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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