A response from the Food Standards Agency…

SORRY IT’S taken me a while to post this – here’s the response I received from the FSA on my allergen labelling gripes. I’ve highlighted a few bits in bold but, in short, I think our next step is to write directly to the European Commission. Sigh. And all I wanted to do was buy a few bits in Sainsbury’s…

27 September 2013

Dear Ms Baracaia,

Thank you for your email of 16 September 2013 regarding the provision of food information to consumers.

As you are aware, the new EU regulation bringing rules on general and nutrition labelling together into a single regulation to simplify and consolidate existing labelling legislation was published in October 2011. Most of the provisions of the new rules, specifically the highlighting of allergens in the list of ingredients and allergen information provision for non pre-packed foods, including those sold in restaurants and cafés, will apply from 13 December 2014.

If I may take your points in the order in which you raised them. Previously, as well as the ingredients list, which is a legal requirement, many food products had a statement or an allergy advice box saying they contain a certain food, for example nuts, milk or eggs. These boxes are not a legal requirement and not reliable as they may not be on all food labels. Allergic consumers should always read the ingredients list.

The option of making allergen boxes mandatory was considered but rejected in the EU as majority of Member States wanted allergy information included in the ingredients list only once. As this legislation is Europe wide, we are not able to make the use of allergy boxes compulsory in the UK.

In order to make the ingredients list easier to read, a requirement was included for the allergenic ingredients in the ingredients list to be emphasised. There are also new requirements on label clarity, legibility and minimum font size for all mandatory information making the information easier to read. The EU FIC also contains a requirement not to mislead and to provide accurate, clear and easy to understand information.

On the presentation of the labelling of certain substances or products causing allergies, the requirement is that the ingredients must be emphasized through a typeset different from that of the rest of the list of ingredients, for example by means of the font, style or background colour. Emphasis may be achieved by indicating the ingredients concerned in bold in the list of ingredients. However, food business operators can choose to use other ways of emphasis, for reasons of technical feasibility.

The British Retail Consortium guidance that you referred to should not be taken as an authoritative statement or an interpretation of the law. It is ultimately the responsibility of individual businesses to ensure their compliance with the law.

It is not quite correct that the word gluten is banned from ingredients list. Article 21.1 on the presentation of the labelling of certain substances or products causing allergies or intolerances sets out that these must be indicated in the list of ingredients “ with a clear reference to the name of the substance or product as listed in Annex II ”. If gluten itself is used as an ingredient, this will have to be declared in the ingredients list together with the cereal from which it is derived e.g gluten (wheat). However, businesses can choose to include “gluten” within the ingredient name, e.g “wheat flour (gluten)” in the ingredients list.

Anyone who is diagnosed with coeliac disease should be given clear information about the food they need to avoid, including cereals such as barley, rye as well as wheat.

The declaration of the mandatory allergen information is not required in cases where the name of the food clearly refers to the substance or product concerned. Dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter can legally only be made from animal milk and this is why it is not necessary to label them as, for example, cheese (milk). This rule is unchanged from the existing legislation.

Where foods are offered for sale to the final consumer or to mass caterers without pre-packaging, the provision of allergen information is mandatory. The information can be supplied on the menu, on chalk boards, tickets or provided verbally by an appropriate member of staff as well as in other formats made available to the consumer. If the information is to be provided verbally by a member of staff, then it is necessary to make it clear that the information can be obtained by asking a member of staff by means of a notice, menu, ticket or label that can easily be seen by customers. If the business chooses to provide their information verbally, then they will need to have to processes in place to ensure that staff can provide this information accurately and consistently. These processes are subject to inspection by enforcement officers.

At present, there are no agreed legal limits to be used as a basis for advisory warning labels relating to allergen cross contamination risks. The Agency is working with a consortium of European researchers, operating under the name Europrevall, to try and determine how clinical threshold doses of food allergens in individuals can be translated into management thresholds in foods to help industry decide whether or not a “may contain” label is appropriate to use on a particular food product.

But before rules can be made, there needs to be agreement on the thresholds otherwise there is a risk of such warnings becoming even more common. However, the new legislation already contains the option for mandatory rules on this issue to be introduced in the future and these could be introduced once allergen management threshold levels have been agreed.

As all food legislation originates in the European Union, you may wish to take this matter up with them. They can be contacted at the:

European Commission

DG Health and Consumer Protection

Unit E4: Food Law, Nutrition and Labelling

Rue de la Loi 200

B-1049 Brussels

Belgium

I hope this explanation clarifies the position for you.

Yours sincerely

Sue Hattersley

Food Allergy Branch

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4 thoughts on “A response from the Food Standards Agency…

  1. Janet Baracaia

    Further thoughts …. The Food Standards Agency have told you to contact the EU. I would have thought it was their job to make representations (?)

  2. Angela

    Hi Alex Do you have an email address I could contact you on. As a group of parents who share your concerns regarding the new labelling we are considering a petition against the proposals and think you would be of great assistance to us. Kind Regards Angela

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