Consumer reading food label

Are you following developments in precautionary allergen labelling and information?

4 July 2023 | Helen Arrowsmith, Regulatory Affairs Manager and Allergen Specialist

In many jurisdictions there is currently no specific legislative requirement to provide information on allergens that are unintentionally present in food or drink due to cross-contact. This blog discusses precautionary allergen labelling/information (often referred to as ‘may contain’ statements) and details recent developments in this area.

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Provision of allergen information

For the estimated 3-10% of adults and 8% of children globally with a food allergy, and many more people with other food hypersensitivities such as food intolerance and coeliac disease, there is currently no widely available cure - the only way to prevent reactions is to avoid the food that triggers symptoms. It is therefore vitally important that food businesses provide consumers with clear and accurate information about the potential or known presence of substances that could cause food hypersensitivity reactions in products, to allow consumers to make informed, safe food choices.

Several countries and regions (including the UK, Europe, America, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand for example) have introduced legislation that requires the presence of major food allergens, and their derivatives, to be labelled when they are included as ingredients in prepacked foods. Such information is also increasingly required for non-prepacked food, such as in catering situations, to be provided to consumers.

Only a few jurisdictions, however, have specific legislative requirements relating to precautionary allergen declarations, i.e. information on the potential of unintended presence of food allergens. Such information is often called ‘precautionary allergen labelling’ (PAL) when it is on the label of prepacked foods or ‘precautionary allergen information’ when referring to non-prepacked foods.

Sources of allergen cross-contact

Ingredients can become contaminated with food allergens in the supply chain, for example during the growing, harvesting, processing and transport of crops. Allergen cross-contact may occur during the production of final products; this can happen when several food products containing or not containing different allergens, are made on the same premises, processing line or equipment.

Food businesses spend a lot of time, effort and money implementing allergen management practices, including controls to prevent or minimise the potential for allergen cross-contact. It should be considered though that very small amounts of food can cause reactions in sensitive people; for example, a drop of milk, a fragment of peanut or just one or two sesame seeds. Therefore, despite the best efforts of the food business, sometimes there remains an unavoidable risk of allergen cross-contact that cannot be sufficiently controlled.

When should precautionary statements be used?

Where food is marketed in a country or region where specific legislation applies regarding PAL, this must be complied with. Guidance from the Food Standards Agency states that in the absence of specific legislative requirements in the UK, precautionary statements regarding possible allergen cross-contact should be justifiable only on the basis of a meaningful risk assessment applied to a responsibly managed operation. Such statements should not be used as a substitute for good hygiene and/or safety practices; they should only be used where there is a demonstrable and significant risk of allergen cross-contact.

What should precautionary statements say?

In jurisdictions where the wording for such statements is regulated, this must be adhered to. In areas where the wording is not specified in law, research has found tens of different statements are being used to communicate to consumers. Most commonly, precautionary allergen labelling of prepacked food is seen to include use of statements such as ‘may contain X’ and ‘not suitable for those with X allergy’; whereas, for non-prepacked food, examples such as ‘produced in a kitchen which uses X’ are often seen. As there is currently no precise wording laid down in UK law, such statements provided on a voluntary basis must not mislead the consumer or be ambiguous or confusing.

Developments to be aware of

There is work being conducted and discussions happening at national and international levels about managing food allergens, the use of allergen threshold levels to inform allergen risk management for foods and standardising the application and wording of PAL. We have listed below some of these works worth being aware of:

Food legislation is constantly evolving. For all working in food and drink manufacture, retail and service, navigating the local and global regulatory environment and keeping abreast of regulatory developments is challenging. For over 100 years we have kept the global food and drink industry informed, compliant and prepared for the future. Our Regulatory experts guide our clients through the complexities of food labelling legislation world-wide, navigating the subtle differences between regions, markets and jurisdictions.

For support on precautionary allergen labelling/precautionary allergen information, allergen labelling, or food labelling, get in touch with our Regulatory Affairs team.

About Helen Arrowsmith

After her PhD, Helen joined Campden BRI in 2004 when she spent a year as Technical Support Officer in the Food Composition Section. The next nine years were spent in the Biochemistry Section, where Helen managed the provision of technical contract services in the area of food allergen detection, provided interpretation of testing results, consultancy, information and advice on food allergen testing.

In 2014, Helen moved to our Regulatory team where she has gained comprehensive understanding and experience of food law, not just relating to food allergens.

Helen now uses her knowledge and expertise to provide advice on all aspects of UK and harmonised EU legislation, including relating to food allergens. Helen presents on scheduled and tailored training courses on food law and food allergens, and oversees the production of our Food Law Alert.

Helen has managed various research projects; in 2023 she supervised and contributed to a Review of the literature and guidance on food allergen cleaning for the Food Standards Agency . Helen has also co-authored two guidance documents for the food industry on ‘Validation of cleaning to remove food allergens’ (Campden BRI Guideline 59) and ‘Food allergens: practical risk analysis, testing and action levels’ (Campden BRI Guideline 71).

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