Vague allergen warning is dangerous, Lords tell FSA

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food standards agency European union

The UK's Food Standards Agency should ensure appropriate
consideration is given to allergens by the European Commission, as
part of if its review of food labelling, say peers.

However the House of Lords' Committee on Science and Technology has expressed concern that allergen labelling, as part of the on-going EU review of food labelling requirements, is not be specific enough. "Vague defensive warnings on labels for consumers with food allergy can lead to dangerous confusion and an unnecessary restriction of choice,"​ they said. "We recommend that the Food Standards Agency should ensure the needs of food allergic consumers are clearly recognised during the review of food labelling legislation being undertaken by the European Union." ​ The comments came as part of a major report published this week by the committee, which is chaired by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff. They are in-line with the Food Standards Agency's initiative, which sets out to discourage vague and defensive warnings. EU allergen labelling requirements are set out in European Directive (2003/89/EC). These came into force in the UK in November 2004, and there was a one-year transitional period to give manufacturers time to adapt. On a general basis, however, the European Commission is presently evaluation of legislation on labelling, with a view to modernisation and simplification. The 2004 EU allergen labelling rules established a list of 12 food allergens - cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, nuts, soybeans, milk, celery, mustard, sesame, and sulphur dioxide at levels above 10mg/kg or 10 mg/litre expressed as SO2 - which have to be indicated by reference to the source allergen whenever they, or ingredients made from them, are used at any level in pre-packed foods, including alcoholic drinks. Previously an allergen had to be labelled only if it made up 25 per cent or more of the finished product. Some allergen-derived ingredients, however, are exempt since they are so highly processed that they are deemed no longer to pose a threat. A final list of these exemptions is expected to be published this November. In the UK, there are between five and 15 food allergy-related deaths each year, according to the FSA. The FSA has said in the past that it works with the industry to reduce unnecessary use of the word 'may contain' labels. This seems to be used by manufacturers wishing to cover their backs, and while it could be helpful to some consumers there have been concerns that this wording is used too much. Furthermore, the committee noted that sensitivities to allergens can vary widely amongst sufferers. For this reason, it says that setting standardised threshold levels for package labelling is potentially dangerous for consumers. Rather, it said it would be better for food labels to clearly specify the amount of each allergen that is listed in the European Union directive. In the past the Agency found that it was issuing advice on products with inappropriate labelling at least once a week. In an attempt to reduce this, in March it launched a free SMS text message alert system so sufferers could be aware immediately what foods they should avoid. Also included in the Lords report was the notion that advice on peanut consumption by pregnant women and children to reduce allergy risk could be counterproductive. The committee is calling for urgent withdrawal pending review.

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