The past couple of times I have travelled by aeroplane there has been an announcement requesting that passengers don’t eat nuts because somebody on board is allergic to them. This is a good example of how seriously we take the effects of allergens nowadays. It also demonstrates our understanding that certain foods only need to be ingested in tiny amounts in order to cause severe discomfort in allergy sufferers. In some cases just the smell of an allergen can trigger a reaction.
What’s the difference between food allergies and food intolerances?
Put simply, a food allergy is an adverse immune response to certain foods, generally caused by types of proteins. The body doesn’t recognise these proteins 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.
Food intolerance, by comparison, only affects the digestive system and manifests itself as gas, wind, abdominal bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea or stomach cramps. Food intolerances aren’t caused by proteins and people don’t die because of them. They usually occur because the body doesn’t have enough enzymes to break down the sugars present in a particular type of food.
What about Coeliac Disease?
People suffering from Coeliac Disease experience symptoms of both allergies and intolerances. They are allergic to the protein gluten, which is found in many cereals (e.g. wheat, rye, barley etc.) so the body produces toxins to fight it. Unfortunately this reaction also damages the walls of the small intestine, where enzymes which break down lactose are made. As a result Coeliacs are often also intolerant to milk and milk products.
The 14 food allergens you need to know
Although people are allergic to many different things, there are 14 foods or processing ingredients which are classed as major food allergens i.e. liable to cause a severe allergic reaction in sufferers. These are:
- Cereals containing gluten
- Sulphur dioxide or sulphites
Companies producing pre-packaged food have, for a number of years, been required to advise consumers via their labelling of any allergens present in their food. Several companies chose to use separate allergy boxes with messaging such as ‘contains gluten’ or ‘contains nuts’. However from 13th December 2014, (i.e. last month) there was a new requirement for the way in which this information is presented.
How allergen information needs to be presented
Under the UK Food Information Regulations 2014 (FIR) and the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIC) allergy boxes are no longer permitted. Instead all allergens must be included in the ingredients list and highlighted in bold lettering. Moreover, except where a package contains a single ingredient, e.g. eggs or peanuts, the allergens must now be declared separately within the ingredients list. For example you can’t just list an allergen once, products from the same allergenic ingredient must be listed e.g.: Skimmed milk concentrate, sunflower oil, whey powder (milk).
The exception to the rule is familiar dairy products which can only be made from milk such as butter, cheese, cream and yoghurt. In the case of other less familiar milk-based products or components such as fromage frais, quark, lactose, casein and whey protein, milk still needs to be listed as an allergen.
Other instances where allergens must be declared is if they’re being used as an ingredient or processing aid during the food production process e.g. wheat flour used to roll out dough made from rye flour or enzymes used in cheese production.
New food regulations also apply to food which is not pre-packaged
Companies producing pre-packaged food have always been required to provide information about the contents of those packages and tins; but the new food regulations have now made it mandatory for businesses selling or serving foods which are not pre-packed to provide information about any allergenic ingredients in their foods. Failure to comply can lead to action being taken by enforcement officers.
This means that contract caterers, school kitchens, local bakeries, cafés, hospitals, bars restaurants and even childminders now need to provide allergen information. This doesn’t need to be in the form of a label; and the way in which it is presented isn’t rigid like labelling for pre-packaged food, but nevertheless it must be available. For example the information can be printed in menus, on leaflets, displayed on boards or there must be directions to a web page containing the information. For smaller operations where the vendor/server is also the manufacturer of the food, the consumer can ask directly whether there are specific allergens within the food. The main point is that information about allergens must be available.
The wider scope of the FIC and FIR will necessitate full disclosure of accurate allergen information about ingredients and processes throughout the food supply chain. In larger concerns where several food businesses are involved, the responsibility for compliance ultimately rests with the operator whose name the food is marketed under, so it is in their interests to fully scrutinise every aspect of the supply chain.
There are, of course, situations where allergens don’t feature as an ingredient or processing aid in a food product, but there is a slight chance of cross contamination from other products which do contain allergens produced in the same facility. Whilst allergen boxes aren’t permitted on labelling, since the allergen doesn’t feature in the ingredients list, in instances such as these you can still use messaging such as ‘may contain nuts’ or similar.
Verner Wheelock courses make sense of food allergen labelling and control
We run a very popular course called ‘Managing Food Allergens in Food Manufacturing’, which took place last week, but will also run later in the year.
Food allergen labelling legislation can seem fairly complex, so to make things easy to understand and answer any queries about what you can and can’t say, how claims can be substantiated, what you must declare, nutritional and allergy information, ingredients and how and where information must be presented, why not consider our ‘Creative Legal Labelling’ course or a day’s consultancy?
For more information, please visit our specialist courses page