Allergy Labelling - and farewell to the 25% rule

Welcome new EU regulations on allergy labelling will come into force in November this year. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson looks at what difference they will make to shoppers on restricted diets.

After a long gestation the EU’s new regulations on labelling allergenic foods finally come into force on November 25th this year. Although no regulation will ever satisfy everyone, the changes will certainly make shopping a lot easier for those on restricted diets.

However, these regulations apply only to food; they do not cover:
• Pet foods
• Cosmetics
• Contaminants - e.g. ingredients that got into the products by mistake rather than on purpose.
Moreover, although they come into force on November 25th for products manufactured after this date, products complying with the old
regulations which are already in
distribution or on supermarket shelves may remain there until they are sold or run out of shelf life.

The Major Allergens
The directive establishes a list of 12 ‘major allergens’ which will always have to be declared, no matter how minute the quantity in which they are used. These are:

• Celery and celeriac
• Cereals containing gluten (ie wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut or their hybridised strains) and products thereof
• Crustaceans (crab, crayfish, lobster, prawn, shrimp) and products thereof
• Eggs and products thereof
• Fish and products thereof
• Milk and products thereof (including lactose)
• Mustard seeds and products thereof
• Peanuts and products thereof
• Sesame seeds and products thereof
• Soybeans and products thereof
• Tree nuts and products thereof
• Sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentration of more than 10 parts per million

The 25% rule
The first major plus is that the ‘25% rule on compound ingredients’ has gone. For those who do not instantly recognise it, this rule stated that if a compound ingredient formed less than 25% of the total dish then the ingredients of that ingredient did not have to be listed.
In other words, since the pepperoni on the top of a pizza formed less than 25% of the total pizza, its ingredients did not have to be listed, even though they might contain several of those ‘major allergens’.
This was a nightmare scenario for anyone trying to avoid specific ingredients as they had absolutely no way of telling whether any of the foods they needed to avoid were in dishes which contained ‘compound ingredients’.

Of course it is not quite as simple as that and there do remain exceptions and exemptions.

Alcoholic Drinks
Up until now alcoholic drinks over 1.2% alcohol have not had to declare any of their ingredients. Under the new legislation they will now have to declare any of the 12 major allergens that they contain although they still do not have to list other ingredients.

Other ingredients known to be allergenic
Other foods known to cause allergic reactions (such as kiwi fruit) should be declared as an ingredient unless they are part of an ‘exempt’ ingredient which makes up less than 2% of the finished products. ‘Exempt products’ include jams, jellies, marmalades, fruit juices, cocoa, chocolate, herbs and spice mixtures.
So, if a fruit tart contains less than 2% of a jam which has been made from or with kiwi fruit, that kiwi fruit will not need to be declared.

Additives, solvents and processing aids
These must be declared if they have been made from any of the 12 major allergens and if they are present in the finished product, even if in an altered form. Other additives do not need to be listed.

You will note that the list of major allergens includes, in each case, ‘and products thereof’.
Although some derivatives of major allergens (cheese or butter from milk, for example) would be just as allergenic as the original foodstuff, others may have been processed to the point that the allergic proteins are no longer present. Where this is the case an exemption has been granted.

For the most part these exemptions are pretty esoteric - Viz:
Cereals containing gluten: Wheat based glucose syrups including dextrose; wheat base maltodextrins, glucose syrups based on barley; cereals used in distillates for spirits
Eggs: Albumin used as a fining agent in wine or cider
Fish: Fish gelatine used as a carrier for vitamins & minerals and as a fining agent in beer, cider & wine.
Mustard: Mustard oil and oleoresin
Milk: Whey used in distillates, lactitol, milk casein used as fining agent in cider & wines
Nuts: Nuts used in distillates for spirits and used as flavour in spirits.
Celery: Celery oil and oleoresin
Soya: Fully refined soya oil and fat

To many peoples’ surprise, refined peanut oil does not appear amongst these exemptions. Despite extensive research carried out in Southampton in 1997, EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, felt that there was not enough scientific proof that the refining had removed all allergenic proteins for refined peanut oil to be included in the list.
The Anaphylaxis Campaign are concerned about the possible knock on effects of labelling a product which they do not believe still contains allergic proteins. They worry that if a peanut allergic person discovers that they have eaten refined peanut oil by mistake, but suffered no ill effects, they may develop a false sense of security about their allergy and believe that they can eat anything containing peanut.

‘The Sensible Approach’
In general manufacturers are encouraged to use the most common name of the allergen on their packaging.
For example, tahini should be listed as ‘sesame tahini’, casein as ‘milk protein’, satay as ‘peanut satay’,
albumen as ‘egg albumen’, tofu as ‘soya bean curd/soya tofu’ etc.

Foods sold loose and in catering establishments
The most glaring exemption from the new regulations is that of ‘foods sold loose and in catering establishments’ - although pre-packed food sold to any outlet, be it a restaurant or a market stall, does now have to carry fullallergy and ingredients labelling.

This is such a difficult area that it was decided, probably wisely, that if they were to try to include it, the regulations would never come into force at all. It does, however, remain high on the agenda, not only in Brussels but with the Foods Standards Agency who are consulting on ways forward even as we write.

‘ May contain’
The other tricky area which was set aside for further consultation is ‘may contain’ labelling.
Manufacturers put ‘may contain’ warnings on a wide range of products both to protect allergic customers from the possibility that the food might have been contaminated, and to protect themselves against prosecution if so. The problems is that a simple ‘may contain’ gives no indication of the degree of risk that a specific product presents.
Has a nut-free chocolate bar, for example, been made on equipment which had previously been used to make bars containing nuts (very high risk), or in a factory where no nuts are used but the manufacturer cannot guarantee that the raw materials might not have been contaminated by nuts before they reached the factory (very low risk).

While the Food Standards Agency continue to scratch their heads and consult about this one too, Tesco have taken the bull by the horns and come up with a new format which goes a long way to identify where risk may lie and how great it may be.
They have devised four stages of warning, the most appropriate of which will appear on all risk-carrying products.

1. Recipe: No nuts.
Ingredients: Cannot guarantee nut-free.
Factory: No nuts

2. Recipe: No nuts.
Ingredients: Cannot guarantee nut-free.
Factory: Product made in nut-free area but nuts used elsewhere.

3. Recipe: No nuts.
Ingredients: Cannot guarantee nut-free.
Factory: Before being prepared for the manufacture of this product the equip- ment was previously used to make products containing nuts.

4. Recipe contains peanuts.
May contain traces of other nuts.

While it is excellent that Tesco have taken this step it is a shame that, once again, this will be a voluntary scheme put in place by a single
retailer (albeit a big one) as what is so desperately needed in allergen labelling is consistency.

No matter how good and worthy individual schemes may be, as long as they are not universal the risk of confusion and lack of clarity remains. Since it is unlikely that either major retailers or manufacturers will ever be able to agree amongst themselves on an acceptable format, the only way to achieve consistency and clarity is through government or EU regulation.

For further information check:
Tesco Customer Services 0800 505555

First Published in 2005

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