The FSA has published guidance designed to help UK food firms improve their labelling advice for people with allergies.
The allergen management and advisory labelling guidance, which is voluntary, uses examples of 'best practice' to help businesses of all sizes provide appropriate advisory labels that are clearer for consumers to understand.
It is also designed to help businesses assess the risk of cross-contamination with allergens.
"Up to 1.5 million people in the UK have food allergies, and it is vital that they are fully informed about the contents of the foods they are buying," said Sue Hattersley, head of the FSA's food allergy branch.
"Advisory labelling should only be used when, following a thorough risk assessment, there is a real risk of allergen cross-contamination. Excessive use of warning labels about the possible presence of allergens, can restrict consumer choice and devalue the impact of warning labels."
Indeed, the agency claims that a variety of warnings such as 'may contain nuts' are used so widely on pre-packed foods that many consumers are unable to assess the risks and simply ignore them. Unlike the situation for deliberately added ingredients, there are no statutory controls governing the labelling of the possible presence of allergens due to cross-contamination of foods along the supply chain.
Up to 1.5 million people in the UK have food allergies. It is vital that they are fully informed about the contents of the foods they are buying.
"We are delighted to see this guidance published and believe it will ensure a consistent approach to controlling and communicating the presence of food allergens in pre-packed foods," said David Reading, director of the anaphylaxis campaign.
"Living with food allergy is fraught with risk and creates tremendous anxiety. The new guidance has the potential to improve things considerably for those affected."
The food allergy issue has become increasingly important for both consumers and industry. Labelling regulations and consumer concerns over allergens in food have led to increased costs for food processors, including investments for segregating plant area and labelling.
Allergen labelling regulations that came into force on 25 November require companies to label all pre-packed foods if they contain any of the 12 listed allergenic foods as an ingredient. The mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives covers cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soybeans, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.
As a result of these consumer concerns, the UK free-from food market, including dairy-, gluten- and wheat-free products, is set to double, according to market analyst Mintel. The sector, which is being driven by increased public awareness of food allergies and intolerance, has already enjoyed sales growth of over 300 per cent since 2000.
The free-from market was worth £90 million in 2005, and Mintel said that the gluten and wheat-free sector has benefited in particular from the nation's increasing interest in healthy eating. Sales of products such as wheat-free breads and cakes have grown by almost 120 per cent over the last three years alone, to reach £48 million.
Meanwhile, dairy-free products are valued at £32 million, with sales of products such as soy milk and yoghurts growing by 28 per cent over the same three year period.