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Allergen labelling: make sure you get yours right

We’re all much more conscious of the existence of allergens than we were 10 years ago. The way we label our food products has had to change. If we’re a caterer, café, restaurant or take-away business, we need to make customers aware of known allergens in our food.

Plus, more and more specialist ‘free from’ products have emerged on the market. These have recipe formulations designed to appeal to those allergic or intolerant to certain foods such as wheat, milk, nuts and eggs.

Allergen labelling

It’s no longer acceptable to mention an allergen once on food packaging or labelling. ‘Contains milk and gluten’ just won’t cut the mustard for a pre-packaged cheese sandwich. Instead you would have to list them separately, i.e. Wheat flour (gluten), cheese (milk), within the ingredients list.

If you take a look at the news page on the Food Standards Agency’s website, you’ll find several instances of product recalls. Aside from a couple relating to physical hazards, or incorrect ‘Use by’ dates, the rest refer to undeclared allergens or incorrect allergen labelling. In fact, during the past two months there have been 22 reports of this type.

There are a number of things that we need to be alert to regarding allergens and allergen labelling. These are just a few. You can find out everything you need to know on our Managing Food Allergens course.

Declare all relevant allergens

Unless you use separate areas and production lines; if your factory makes products containing an allergen, you will need to declare it, even if the allergen doesn’t feature in the ingredients for that particular product. This is because even the tiniest trace can trigger a serious reaction in certain people. So, for example, if you’re producing a plain chocolate bar, but you also produce a line containing hazelnuts, you will need to mention this on the packaging for the plain chocolate bar. Something along the lines of “manufactured in an environment that also produces products containing nuts.”

Be wary of any product changes

You need to be aware of changes to your regular product – for example if you run a limited-edition version containing an extra ingredient. For example, if you added ‘Eton Mess’ to a chocolate bar, you would need to declare the egg. Staying on the subject of chocolate – Thornton’s had to recall their personalised dark chocolate Easter eggs because the icing contained milk, which was not mentioned on the packaging.

Check supplier ingredients are allergen-free

If you change an ingredient supplier, you need to check with them if there are any allergens in their product. Even if you’re confident that your current product doesn’t contain allergens, you need to double-check every time anything changes.

Storage of ingredients can also be a factor if ingredients have been stored or transported together. This is why visual inspection for tears or holes in packaging is so important.

Avoid product recalls

Product recalls can be a costly business. And if it’s the packaging that’s to blame, rather than the product, that’s very frustrating. That’s why it’s always worth taking the time to ensure that the labelling is correct. Dispose of any packaging that doesn’t contain the correct information, and always ensure that the packaging contains the correct product.

There have been instances of allergen and non-allergen foods being packed together – which obviously poses a risk. Only recently Tesco had to recall a Chicken Chow Mein product because it had been packed together with a Chicken Curry product. This meant that it contained e.g. milk, mustard and sesame – which weren’t mentioned on the label.

How serious can it get?

The main 14 allergens are (in alphabetical order): celery, gluten, crustaceans, egg, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, nuts, peanuts, sesame, soya and sulphur dioxide.

An allergic reaction occurs when the body doesn’t recognise certain proteins in a type of food and so fights them off with toxins. Unfortunately, these toxins are also harmful to the body and cause a variety of symptoms which range from skin irritations to gastro-intestinal problems and, in severe cases, problems breathing and a dangerous drop in blood pressure which can even lead to death.

Nobody wants to be responsible for any of the above because their product was labelled incorrectly. If you need help with product labelling, why not ask about our 1-day in-house legal labelling course?

After all, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.