May contain…misleading information: Overuse of allergen warnings is putting consumers at risk

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

The Nordic Council's previous report concluded that: "Companies have not sufficiently accepted that allergens are a real danger for certain consumer groups," but it hopes progress has been made since then.
The Nordic Council's previous report concluded that: "Companies have not sufficiently accepted that allergens are a real danger for certain consumer groups," but it hopes progress has been made since then.

Related tags: Norway, Nordic countries, Allergen

Nordic authorities are cracking down on the unnecessary use of allergen advisory warnings after a review found one fifth of products were wrongly labelled.  

As part of its follow-up review, which is taking place across Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, authorities will evaluate if the advisory warning 'May contain traces of...' is being used as it should, as well as general compliance with allergen labelling.

The preview review​ conducted in 2012 by the Nordic Council of Ministers showed labelling deficiencies for 20% of products tested had pulled up companies for claiming 'May contain traces of...' without sufficient analysis of whether there was a genuine risk of contamination. “These are deficiencies that the food authorities in the Nordic countries regard as very serious,” ​said the study.

This review will evaluate if industry compliance has improved since then.

Across Europe, industry has been criticised for its overuse of this advisory warning which leaves many pre-packaged products a no-go for allergy-sufferers, often unnecessarily.

Last year​ a survey by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) of over 1000 British products found around half of foods which claimed ‘May contain…’ or ‘Not suitable for people with a X allergy’ were free of the allergen in question, while levels of the allergens that were found were so low that the FSA did not consider them to be a risk for allergy-sufferers.

Ylva Sjögren Bolin, a chemist at Sweden’s National Food Agency said overuse of the warnings could result in consumers becoming blasé and taking risks by ignoring the advice.

“The risk is that allergic consumers ignore the warning because it is used too much – but sometimes there can be a high level of the allergen. We have seen cases like this with milk and peanuts." 

“[Currently] the Nordic authorities recommend food companies only use this ‘May contain’ label where traces of the allergen or contamination have already occurred sporadically."

Although there is currently no regulation governing the label ‘May contain traces of...’, Sjögren Bolin told FoodNavigator the NFA would like to see specific legislation covering this. She could not say what form the authority thought this could take.

The NFA's guidelines currently state the warning may not be used as an excuse for poor controls and hygiene management.

Researchers have suggested that better definitions for the thresholds​ at which common allergens trigger a reaction in the most sensitive sufferers could allow food companies to provide more consistent warnings.

More detailed testing

The current review, which will continue until mid-November 2015, will involve more detailed testing than in 2012. For instance, if a product is labelled as containing lecithin, the authorities will verify if it is derived from soy, eggs or milk.

Any products found to be non-compliant will be withdrawn from the market.

Sjögren Bolin said she hoped there would be less deficiencies compared with 2012. "In Sweden at least we have had more education for the food sector and updated guidelines since then.” 

Under the EU’s Food Information for Consumers (EUFIC), food manufacturers must label 14 allergens – peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, mustard, eggs, lupin, milk, fish, cereals containing gluten, sesame, celery, sulphur dioxide, molluscs and crustaceans. 

The results of the Nordic report are expected to be published in 2016.

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