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New Allergen Labeling Coming to the EU
What the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation means for food manufacturers
by Simon Flanagan
The new European Union (EU) Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIC) means a significant overhaul for food processors in how they approach allergen labeling. As of December 13 of this year, all food packaging must comply with FIC and its enactment in the U.K. statute books as the Food Information Regulations (FIR). It is therefore crucial for all those working in the food industry to understand what is expected from labeling going forward, the rationale behind the changes, and how they can follow best practice both to comply with legislation and to provide the best experience for consumers. FIC has a broad remit covering nutritional information, origin labeling, and more, but here we will concentrate on the implications of the regulation for allergen labeling.
The Ingredients List
The new Regulation mandates the loss of two key familiar labeling features, meaning that manufacturers and consumers alike need to relearn how to construct and interpret allergen warnings. Perhaps the most striking instance of this is new constraints on the allergen advice boxes often used on products manufactured for the U.K. market. This is currently where allergen information tends to be concentrated; however, in order to comply with FIC these warning boxes will be severely limited in what they can state. From December onwards the boxes must not duplicate information about allergenic ingredients, but simply refer consumers to the product’s ingredients list.
Only in the case where there is no legal requirement to list ingredients on the food packaging may allergenic ingredients be listed separately—wine, for example. Products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, which also legally require no ingredients list, will not be required to be labeled “contains milk” as this is deemed to be commonly understood. In all other cases, however, allergens should be emphasized within the existing ingredients list, in bold type, or by other indications in the font, style, or background color.
Another aspect of this regulation to aid consumer understanding relates to suffixing allergenic ingredients with the actual name of the allergen in the ingredients lists, e.g. anchovy (fish) unless the name of the allergen is included in the name of the ingredient, e.g. skim milk powder. The allergens covered by FIC for mandatory labeling are the same as those currently included in existing labeling regulations (2000/13 EC annex iiia); cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, egg, fish, peanuts, milk, tree nuts, soy, sesame, celery, mustard and sulfhur dioxide, and sulfites (greater than 10 parts per million in finished product).
Whilst this is a significant change, and there is a clear necessity for consumer education about understanding how the new allergen information will be provided, it is hoped that once food manufacturers are all compliant with FIC that the standardization of approach will lead to far better consumer awareness. It is also worth noting that allergen information boxes are not commonly used currently in all countries of the EU, so another benefit of labeling in accordance with FIC is that consumers can be assured that they need to follow the same procedure in checking labels for allergens wherever they travel within the EU.
The other clear benefit of the new Regulation—for both manufacturers and consumers—is that there is a far reduced scope for conflicting information in the ingredients list and allergy advice box on the same product. This has in the past led to consumer confusion and potential danger to those with food allergy, and has commonly been the cause of food product recalls. Because consumers are accustomed to looking for allergen information in a separate box, they may not have checked the ingredients list, which means if an allergen has been missed from the box, the product may well be recalled for safety, even if the allergen is noted within the ingredients. Under FIC, however, the box may only direct customers to the ingredient list. This means that the ingredients list is the only section of the label where they can find allergen information, and thus as long as this information is correct and comprehensive there is potential for a reduced number of recalls due to label errors.
In the interests of ensuring that important allergen information is clear and legible for consumers, FIC also specifies a minimum font size for the text of allergen names in ingredients lists. Manufacturers will be required to ensure that the “x-height”—literally the height of an “x” character and its equivalents—is at least 1.2 millimeters (mm). For smaller products (where the packaging or container’s largest surface is less than 80 centimeter2), the x-height may be reduced to 0.9 mm.
All Stages of Food Chain
An additional big change for food business operators is that all the specific regulations stipulated above no longer solely apply to pre-packaged foods but also to all businesses providing foods at all stages of the food chain—food intended for the final consumer, foods delivered by mass caterers, foods intended for supply to mass caterers, catering services provided by transport leaving from the EU Member States (e.g. airline catering), and distance selling (i.e. Internet).
For foods sold non-pre-packed, such as through a restaurant or café, there is some flexibility about how the information is delivered—it could be orally, for example—but it must be made clear to consumers both that the information is available (and available pre-purchase in the case of distance-selling), and how they can obtain it. Whether this is through notes on menus, signs in restaurants, or through other means is up to the individual businesses, but they must demonstrate they have a policy in place complying with FIC and it’s verifiable on challenge.
An important nuance for food manufacturers to note is that the guidance above refers only to allergenic ingredients deliberately included in the food product, as opposed to allergens that may have been accidentally introduced through cross-contamination. Information about the latter may be provided by manufacturers on a voluntary basis according to FIC. The regulation does have specific provisions however to enable individual member states to agree on common phraseology for voluntary advisory statements such as “may contain” or “not suitable for.” There is also a provision to adopt action levels for advisory labeling when these are agreed by member states.
What About Gluten?
Another major change to familiar labeling conventions that manufacturers must adopt regards how cereals containing gluten are labeled. Gluten, a protein found in wheat and other cereal grains, is one of the 14 allergens that are subject to mandatory labeling requirements. Rather than just labeling “gluten” in the ingredients list, the new regulation requires that the name of the cereal is listed and highlighted in the ingredients, i.e. wheat gluten or barley flour. It is particularly important that this labeling is clear and accurate, as it may be consulted by consumers with a range of different dietary requirements: wheat allergy, celiac disease, or allergies or intolerances to one or more individual cereals such as rye or barley.
The results of implementing FIC should be positive for the industry as well as consumers: A standardized system to be followed across all product categories, potentially fewer product recalls, and less confusion across the board about what products are suitable for allergic consumers are all advantages for the food industry. However, it is crucial for manufacturers to ensure that they are in compliance with the new Regulation before December, both to avoid the legal consequences of noncompliance, and in order to reap the benefits of harmonization of labeling practices. The more knowledge that food industry professionals have about the new guidelines and the principles underlying their introduction, the smoother will be the transition into new FIC-compliant allergen labeling.
Flanagan is a senior consultant, food safety and allergens at RSSL. Reach him at email@example.com.