Food Allergens

In December 2014, new legislation affecting those who provide or sell food comes into force. This month’s article looks at the duties contained in The Food Information Regulations 2014 (FIR) and what you must do.

What is the Purpose of these New Regulations?
The primary purpose of the FIR is to provide clear, comprehensive and legible labelling of foods enabling consumers to make an informed choice wherever they are buying food. The regulations combine existing rules on general food labelling and nutrition into a single regulation and are intended to streamline the process to ensure consistency across Europe.

Who Do The Regulations Apply To?

The regulations apply to:

  • Food business operators at all stages of the food chain, from manufacturers to caterers
  • All foods intended for the end consumer
  • Food delivered by mass caterers, ready for end consumers

What Must I Do?
You must ensure that for pre-packaged foods (food in sealed bags, boxes, jars, bottles etc.), any allergens are easily identified within the ingredients. The regulations identify the 14 most common allergens as follows: celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, soya, and sulphur dioxide.

Changes to Labelling and Ingredients List
All ingredients must be listed in one place on the packaging and any of the specified allergens present in the product must be highlighted in some fashion. Bold text, red text or underlining are some of the methods suggested by the Food Standards Agency for highlighting allergens, as there is no standardised method of highlighting.

The ingredients list must now be the only place on the packaging where ingredient/allergen information is located. Packaging that uses a summary “Contains [allergens]” will no longer be permitted, although products with old-style packaging do not have to be withdrawn. This means that a mix of old and new packaging may be in place for some time, given the long shelf-life of certain products.

Loose Food or Food that is Not Pre-Packaged
Under the new regulations, labelling standards that previously applied only to pre-packaged foods will now apply to food that is sold loose or that is created immediately prior to sale from pre-packaged ingredients. Whilst one obvious industry that will be affected includes restaurants it is worth noting that the duties will extend to workplaces who make and sell simple products such as a sandwich in a company canteen. They will be regarded as a food provider and must identify loose food containing allergens.

Fortunately it is not necessary to provide this information for loose foods in the form of labelling (as this may not always be possible), but you must still make that information available. Written methods of communicating that information include providing it on menus, menu boards or through a website (even if it is not possible to order food online). If you are not providing this information in writing then you must signpost in writing where an allergy sufferer should ask for that information.

If you do use the second option and provide the information verbally, then you must ensure that the information you provide is accurate and consistent. If you have multiple staff providing information to customers with allergies then they must be sufficiently trained to provide the same, correct information to any customers who inquire about allergens. Note that it is the customer’s responsibility to ask for allergy information if prompted to do so by a sign or other written instruction.

Cross-Contamination and Advisory Labelling
An advisory “May Contain [Allergen]” label can still be used, although as ever it should be used only when there is a real risk of cross-contamination identified by a thorough risk assessment. The over-use of this type of label for inappropriate purposes has led to a stigma around it, so be aware that using it is not a substitute for knowing the ingredients of your products and labelling it clearly. Over-using such labels may protect you from liability, but it will impact your business in other ways through negative publicity and possibly the loss of custom. It is recommended that you recognise the problems that over-using advisory labelling can cause and provide clear and unequivocal labelling wherever possible.

Although a confident knowledge of the ingredients in your products is appreciated by allergy sufferers, it is not permissible to label your products as definitely containing allergens where there is only a risk of cross-contamination. Advisory labelling does have a real and justified purpose in spite the negative publicity, and the best approach is to be truthful. If there is a real and genuine risk of cross-contamination that cannot be prevented then you will have to provide that information to allergy sufferers regardless of the negative publicity. You can only provide a clear Yes or No answer in most circumstances, not all circumstances, and sometimes an advisory label will be needed.

In Summary
As a food supplier, your allergen labelling practices will now have to be extended to cover the supply of loose food or food that is not sold pre-packaged. Your requirements for selling or supplying packaged food are have also changed to reflect the new labelling rules, but these changes can be phased in organically. For further information on FIR and other food safety legislation please contact Ellis Whittam who have specialist advisers able to help.