With the number of consumers allergic to nuts increasing on an annual basis in the Western world, the food industry has for some time been striding towards improving the labelling of all suspected nut allergens in food products. A proposal by the European Parliament last week seeks to strengthen food allergen labelling and looks set to impose far stricter labelling across the industry.
The new legislation will be welcomed by consumer associations keen to furnish the consumer with greater knowledge and protect those at risk. Evidence to support the argument that the food industry needs firmer allergen labelling legislation came last week with the publication of a new report from the UK Food Standards Agency. The report found that the labelling of products that may contain nuts is inconsistent and often confusing.
People with a nut allergy have to be extremely careful that the food they eat does not contain nuts and is not contaminated with nuts during production. But the new report, commissioned by the Agency from the Anaphylaxis Campaign, shows that manufacturers use a wide variety of phrases to describe traces of nut contamination and the warning is often difficult to find on labels.
According to the FSA, consumers have complained that these warnings are overused and can unnecessarily restrict consumer choice. They are also concerned that overuse undermines the importance of valid warnings.
The report found that, of the products examined, 11 per cent carried allergen information in a different place on the label to the ingredient listing. Difficulty in finding the right information was reflected by the fact that the shopper avoiding nuts took an average of 7 minutes, almost 30 seconds longer per item, to purchase a basket of 16 items.
Dr Catherine Boyle, head of Allergy and Food Intolerance at the Agency, said: "The Food Standards Agency recognises that "may contain" labelling is essential to allergy sufferers, and that manufacturers are striving to provide this information. However this report confirms that consumers are concerned and confused about the inconsistent way this information is communicated.
"Using 'may contain' as a blanket insurance policy has a real impact on nut allergy sufferers as they find their choice of even the most basic of food items significantly restricted. We would encourage manufacturers to re-examine the labels they are using in light of this report, and will be working closely with them to develop new guidelines that are both practical and helpful."
According to a statement, the FSA will use the report's findings to consult the public and stakeholders on the best ways to improve the situation for people with a nut allergy. The new legislation from the European Commission is a positive step towards achieving this aim.