Special edition: Free-from foods

Reflecting allergen risk with food labelling: ‘Free from’ and ‘may contain’

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

When is 'may contain' useful on product labels?
When is 'may contain' useful on product labels?

Related tags Allergy Asthma Food standards agency

Hospital admissions for children with severe allergic reactions have increased seven-fold in the past decade – so how should food makers ensure labels reflect different levels of risk when a food may not be 100% allergen-free?

Claiming that a food is free from a particular allergen confers a big responsibility to food manufacturers, so many choose to avoid ‘free from’ labels altogether, preferring to alert consumers to potential cross contamination when traces of a potential allergen may have migrated from another area of a factory, usually by adding a statement on-pack such as ‘may contain [allergen]’.

However, there are fears that many allergic consumers have become desensitised to ‘may contain’ labels because they are so widespread.

Improving ‘may contain’ labels

The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) has called for improved guidance on ‘may contain’ labelling, particularly as children account for the sharpest increase in allergy-related hospitalisations.

At an event in Brussels on allergen labelling last month, EAACI president Prof Cezmi Akdis said: “The impact of food allergy on life of the around 17 million affected patients in Europe is often underestimated and dramatically increasing for children. Therefore, EAACI is currently running the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis campaign. Unfortunately research funds in the area have not been increased to satisfy so many unmet needs.”

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.

But despite numerous calls – including from industry​ – there is still no clear guidance on precautionary labelling.

The EAACI 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.

FSA assessment

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. According to the Anaphylaxis Campaign, which represents allergy sufferers in the UK, those who are highly sensitive to allergens will have to stick to foods specifically labelled ‘free from’ a particular allergen, but it has welcomed the FSA’s move as “a move in the right direction”.

The results of the FSA’s research are due to be published in May 2013.

What about preference?

Meanwhile, a study published last year 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.

"Rather than helping the allergic consumer cope with their condition, such labelling restricts food choice further,”​ they wrote. They also warned that consumers might ignore all precautionary labelling,  misunderstand labelling terms, or overlook allergen labelling altogether due to small font size or the appearance of information in multiple languages on packs.

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