The group sent secret shoppers and diners into supermarkets, bakeries, patisseries, fast food outlets and restaurants around the country, and has published its findings in a report.
Overall, the consumer watchdog group called the results “worrying” given the enforcement of a French law (2015-447) last July, which required consumer information on allergens in non-prepacked food be displayed in writing.
The law relates to non-packaged food in fresh food counters at supermarkets, bakeries, patisseries, restaurants and caterers, and goes further than EU legislation which states manufacturers can simply inform consumers orally of potential allergens.
Que Choisir has called on public authorities to ensure the law is being properly enforced and to sanction businesses that are in contravention, and wants to see the law changed so that the information is relayed to consumers on stickers placed directly on the products.
Currently, the law does not specify how this information should be presented, meaning an array of formats are used ranging from visible posters, folders that can be
consulted on-demand, websites or labels.
Monoprix came out top for informing consumers of allergen information in writing (seven out of the eight branches surveyed conformed) while Système U and Géant-Casino – which have a 10-20% share of the market - were last.
The watchdog also praised Auchan for giving prominence to the information provided with 64% of the branches surveyed providing information on individual products.
Under the EU’s Food Information for Consumers (EUFIC) regulation, 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.
Complex industrial recipes to blame
Complex industrial recipes are partly to blame for increased exposure to masked allergens, says the group.
“Almost all sorbets, in addition to fruit and sugar, contain protein from milk used for their texturising and stabilizing properties. Similarly, manufacturers can add proteins from egg whites (lysozyme) to cheese for preservation, or soy, peas or lupin extracts to bakery products. These practices have the direct effect of increasing the risk of allergic accidents,” reads the report in French.
Meanwhile, although it is legal for manufacturers to warn about the possible traces of allergens in their products, the watchdog criticises their overuse – 60% of the businesses surveyed used of them.
“These ‘warning’ labels, which have the sole aim of clearing professionals from their legal responsibility in the event of an allergic accident, have the collateral effect of restricting to an even greater extent the choice of allergic consumers.”
It wants the French food safety authority, ANSES, to tighten use.
This has been flagged as a problem across Europe. Last year Nordic authorities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark began a crackdown on the unnecessary use of allergen advisory warnings after a review found one fifth of products were wrongly labelled with ‘May contain traces of…’.
In 2014 a survey by the UK’s Food Standard’s 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 they were not considered to be a risk.