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FSA Survey of Allergen Labelling

food allergen labelling

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently conducted a survey examining allergen advisory labelling on pre-packed processed foods sold in the UK. The survey also sought to quantify the level of allergens resulting from cross-contamination and establish whether the type of advisory labelling used related to the level of allergen present.
Background:

In the European Union manufactures are required to declare 14 allergens as constituent ingredients in pre-packed foods. The allergens that must be declared are: peanuts, nuts, soybeans, mustard, eggs, lupin, milk, fish, cereals containing gluten, sesame, celery, sulphur dioxide, molluscs and crustaceans). However, the legislation does not cover unintentional cross-contamination with allergens or the resultant use of advisory labelling.

At present the application of advisory labelling varies in the way it is presented. Food producers are often accused of overusing coverall statements such as “...may contain...” or “...may contain traces...” and then listing a number of allergens on labelling irrespective of the ‘real’ ‘quantified’ risk of it being present. This lazy labelling is not helpful to consumers; it leads to choice confusion and can actually increase risk for those with food allergies.

Allergen survey:

The survey examined over 1,000 pre-packed processed foods from a range of retail outlets across the UK. The samples were tested for the unintentional presence and quantity of milk, gluten, peanut and hazelnut. These food allergens were chosen specifically due to the large number of incidents the FSA received over the past few years.

The survey looked at the range of advisory statements used on pre-packed foods comparing the use of these phrases to the levels of allergens present in the foodstuffs, checking both their accuracy and clarity in conveying the message relating to the level of risk to the consumer.

Conclusions:
  • Undeclared allergen cross-contamination in the UK is lower than previously found in studies in other countries, notably Ireland and the USA. However:
  • Allergen cross contamination was detected in food with and without advisory labelling) and where that allergen was not present as an intentional ingredient.
  • A large percentage of samples in which no allergen was detected but carried an advisory label
  • The wording of the advisory label did not reflect the level of cross contamination found
  • A wide variety of different statements were used across the product categories. The most frequently used advisory label was 'may contain traces'. The second most frequently used was 'may contain'.
  • FSA guidance recommends the use of 'may contain X' or 'not suitable for someone with X allergy'. These two statements were found on 20.6% and 7.2% (80/1106) of products, respectively.
The future:

The results of the survey demonstrate there is more work to do and it is believed the results of the survey will help shape the development of proportionate risk based allergen management thresholds for use by the food industry as well as by regulatory and enforcement bodies and lead to improved allergen management and more appropriate use of allergen advisory statements.

If the goals of the survey are realised and we do see an improvement in knowledge-based allergen labelling this will surely help consumers to make better informed choices and lead to improved public health.

Further Commentary

For full details of the survey visit the following web page.

Leave a comment below or visit our discussion topic.


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