A research call will go out in the next few months, with the work likely to be conducted in late 2011 or early 2012, a spokeswoman told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
“Understanding the extent of use of ‘may contain’ labelling and whether and how this relates to actual levels of allergens in such foods, is needed to inform the FSA’s work to develop risk-based, proportionate, allergen management levels [action levels].”
The proposed survey will sample chocolate and biscuit-type products to determine the extent of use and the nature/wording of ‘may contains’ labeling as well as providing quantitative measurements of milk, peanut and hazelnut allergens.
These data would then be used to determine how closely the advisory labelling correlated with actual levels of allergens present in the foods, she said.
Results could then be compared with clinical food challenge data from clinical studies on allergy sufferers.
Proliferation of ‘may contain’ labeling
The project reflects concerns in the trade over the proliferation of ‘may contains’ labelling and the lack of consistency both in its application and the choice of wording adopted by retailers and manufacturers.
The supermarkets, for example, have all adopted slightly different policies on advisory labeling, with some advising suppliers to use statements such as 'made in a factory handling nuts', and others asking manufacturers to use phrases such as 'not suitable for people with a nut allergy/coeliacs’ etc
In a recently-published paper setting out a best practice approach to allergen management, the Food and Drink Federation proposes a shift from a hazard-based approach to a more consistent risk-based approach whereby manufacturers carefully assess the risk of cross-contamination with allergens and only use 'may contains' terms where this risk cannot be controlled.
Rachel Ward, chair of the steering group, said: “Application of allergen management principles is still inconsistent. Individual manufacturers are currently interpreting risk in the supply chain differently as there are no agreed approaches to perform risk assessment to a common standard."
Dark chocolate: May contain milk?
At Food Manufacture’s conference on allergen management last year RSSL's allergens expert Simon Flanagan said the lack of thresholds made enforcement very challenging.
“There was a recall recently on dark chocolate that contained milk. It did actually have a 'may contain' label but it was recalled anyway because it contained 'too much' milk. But how much is too much?”
Clearly defined thresholds would provide firms with action levels to work to, plus defined levels for enforcement, he said.