Food manufacturers must label 14 allergens under EU law – peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, mustard, eggs, lupin, milk, fish, cereals containing gluten, sesame, celery, sulphur dioxide, molluscs and crustaceans. For products that do not intentionally contain these as ingredients, current industry best practice is simply to take all necessary precautions to avoid cross contamination and flag up the possibility of allergens' unintentional presence.
However, EAACI says such precautionary labelling is not sufficiently regulated at the EU level.
“EAACI aims to challenge certain aspects of current EU food labelling directives, which it feels, are insufficient in preventing the accidental consumption of allergens,” the organisation said in a declaration of its priorities. “…Labelling is an essential part of food allergy management for the sufferer and has an important impact on how they manage their diets. EAACI believes that the EU should set clear guidelines for labelling foodstuffs for allergens. This includes products which may contain allergen derivatives and should be clearly linked to the name of the allergen to avoid confusion.”
In addition, the non-profit said it advised manufacturers to flag allergens in a typeset that differs from the one used for ingredients in order to facilitate readability.
A new law coming into force in 2014 under the Food Information for Consumers Regulation will make this mandatory, requiring that potential allergen risks in ingredient lists are highlighted in bold or a different background colour.
But despite numerous calls – including from industry – there is still no clear guidance on precautionary labelling.
The EAACI previously has suggested that industry should follow Swiss legislation on cross contamination warnings, which mandates the declaration of ‘unintentional impurities’ with a level of more than 1 g per kg (1,000 parts per million (ppm)), except for gluten and sulphites, which have their own defined thresholds of 20 ppm and 10 ppm respectively.
Meanwhile, a recent study in Food Quality and Preference investigated food allergy sufferers’ preference for different formats for allergen information, and found that a symbol might be a useful addition to mandatory allergen information.
The study’s authors also criticised industry overuse of ‘may contain’ labels, saying that such labelling may further restrict food choice for allergic consumers. On the other hand, consumers may become desensitised to ‘may contain’ labels because they are so widespread.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency has set out to address some of the unanswered questions around ‘may contain’ labelling, including how much of an allergen is likely to cause a reaction in the vast majority of sensitive individuals.
The results of its research are due to be published in May 2013.