Allergy label landmines: a guide to the new food allergen legislation
New legislation means 14 ingredients that cause a reaction in some individuals will have to be identified on packaging
From December 13th, all food businesses must provide their customers with written information about certain allergenic ingredients found in the food they provide or sell. Although many food ingredients have the potential to cause a hypersensitive reaction, only 14 food allergens are responsible for the majority of allergic reactions.
Legally these 14 foods and their derivatives need to be identified and labelled not only in prepacked foods, but also if they occur in loose or unpacked consumer foods, meals and snacks.
A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly senses a harmless food as a threat to the body. A food intolerance does not normally involve the immune system, with the exception of coeliac disease, an intolerance to gluten. One per cent of the Irish population is estimated to have this autoimmune disease.
The EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation stipulates that restaurants, takeaways, hotels, B&Bs, creches, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric institutions, prisons and contract caterers must have the allergen information in written format at a conspicuous and appropriate location.
Businesses may list the allergens on the menu or on a chalkboard with their specials. Creches may send the allergen information home to parents. Supermarkets, delicatessens and farmers’ markets will also have to post the names of allergens near their loose ready-meals, bakery and salad items. If you are travelling by air, rail or boat, this allergen information will be on prepacked and non-prepacked foods on offer.
If you order a festive tipple in your local this Christmas, you are entitled to view this allergen information either as an addition to the price list or in some visible location in the pub. Some draught beers or wines provided by the glass may require allergen labelling if they are produced using fining agents, which are used to clarify the beverage. These include fish gelatine or isinglass, a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish. It will be interesting to see whether bartenders field any questions on the issue. Will unsuspecting revellers be surprised to note the presence of fish, cereal or milk in their favourite beverage or will the industry be ready to label relevant items?
Like many food businesses, pubs and hotels may still be grappling with the legislation and how to meet the requirements. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has produced guidance documents to help the industry members to comply.
Prevalence of allergy
While this information might seem irrelevant to many of us, food allergy is estimated to affect between 3.2 per cent and 3.6 per cent of the population in Europe, according to James McIntosh from Safefood. The prevalence in the UK is about 1-2 per cent of adults and 5-8 per cent of children.
The number of people affected by allergies appears to be increasing but data for the State is inadequate. There is an average of six to 10 allergy-related deaths per year in the UK, mostly attributable to peanuts. This is probably an underestimate, as a result of misdiagnosis of asthma-related deaths. There is no Irish data on mortality but about 45 people are treated in A&E every year for anaphylactic shock due to food.
Many susceptible teenagers are affected. The death of Emma Sloan on O’Connell Street in Dublin a year ago this month, just minutes after eating a sauce containing peanuts, is a shocking reminder of the consequences for some of ingesting even minute amounts of an allergen.
The 14 major allergens that will be declared in Ireland and the EU are as follows:
-Cereals containing gluten, such as wheat (spelt and Khorasan wheat), barley, rye and oats
-Crustaceans such as prawns, crabs, lobster and crayfish
-Nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, Brazils, pistachios, cashews, macadamias
-Sulphur dioxide or sulphites (where added and is >10mg/kg in the finished product. Often found in dried fruit, and in wine)
-Molluscs such as clams, scallops, squid, mussels, oysters and snails.
Regulation (EC) No 1169/2011 on Food Information to Consumers also brings some important changes to the way in which the allergen information will appear on packaged foods after December 13th.
This information used to be given on “Contains . . .”-type statements, usually summarised in an allergy box on the label. Allergens will now be highlighted in bold in the ingredients list to help customers to identify them. Until all food labels have changed, we will see old and new labels in retail outlets for some time. To ensure you have the correct information, always read the ingredients list. Precautionary allergen labelling can be used only if the manufacturer has carried out a thorough risk assessment and believes there is a real risk of allergen cross-contamination that cannot be eliminated. In this situation, one of the following phrases can be used: “May contain X” or “Not suitable for someone with X allergy”. This will stop much of the defensive labelling and puts the onus on food businesses to know these 14 allergens and where they occur in the foods they sell, rather than absolving themselves and covering themselves legally with a catch-all “may contain” get-out-of-jail card.
The implementation of regulation (EC) No 1169/2011 will also bring changes to the nutrition labelling of prepacked products. However, many companies are already familiar with nutrition labels and the changes will not be as difficult, costly or time consuming for them as allergen labelling.
I welcome the allergen labelling (there is peanut allergy in the family), but I wonder whether this additional level of labelling is necessary. Most of us just want the restaurant or hotel to offer some safe “free from” choices when we eat out, rather than be refused entry on the grounds that they can’t cater for someone with an allergy.
The expense of every food business tracing every allergen in every food on an ongoing basis seems like a logistic and unnecessary nightmare. But it’s the law.
Paula Mee is a dietitian and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. Tweet @paula_mee; paulamee.com