In December 2014, a new EU law came into force requiring clearer labelling of food allergens. This is good news for allergy sufferers in Britain – estimated to number two million adults and children. The changes mean it is now easier to scan pre-packaged foods for problem ingredients, and ensures greater transparency at shops and restaurants.
What’s on the label?
With an 87 per cent rise in allergy-related hospital admissions since 2002, the new rules come at a critical time. The changes mean the following 14 ingredients must now be flagged on the product’s ingredient list:
- crustaceans (ie crab, lobster, crayfish, shrimp, prawn)
- molluscs (ie mussels, oysters, squid)
- tree nuts (namely almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecans, brazils, pistachios, macadamia nuts or Queensland nuts)
- sesame seeds
- cereals containing gluten (namely wheat, such as spelt, Khorasan wheat/Kamut, rye, barley oats)
- celery and celeriac
- lupin (often used in flour)
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites (a type of preservative)
Whether you are buying pre-packaged falafels or a loaf of bread, these fourteen ingredients will now be made clear in bold, italics, highlighted or underlined text. In another major change, loose foods – for instance salads or pasta at delis – are also required to list these allergens.
What are advisory labels?
The phrase ‘may contain traces of’ is still used to indicate that small amounts of an allergen – most often nuts – may have contaminated a product during processing. While manufacturers are striving to provide helpful information, these ambiguous labels can leave consumers in a quandary: the onus is on us to weigh up whether the food is guaranteed safe to eat or not. At restaurants and cafes however, it is no longer enough for waiters to tell customers their meal ‘might’ contain allergens: staff must clarify whether the meal does or doesn’t contain the allergen, or provide information on menus or chalkboards .
Last April there was a consumer backlash when a major retailer labelled products like ham and potatoes with ‘may contain nuts.’ Parents of children with nut allergies complained that it was almost impossible to feed their kids if they heeded all the seemingly excessive, product warnings. The Food Standards Agency is working to reduce the use of advisory labelling and manufacturers are responding to consumer demand.
What’s not on the label
While the new rules pave the way for greater transparency, there is room for improvement. Vegans and vegetarians must still read labels carefully – for example, yoghurts, sweets and breakfast cereals can contain gelatine, an animal byproduct – and sugar remains the master of disguise. There are currently around 56 different words to identify sugar on the ingredient list – including maltodextrin, galactose and corn syrup.
*Although this new law went live in December 2014, some products, such as tinned or dried foods that have a long shelf life, will still be legally available.