Food labels: may contain ‘may contain’; may not contain ‘does contain’

Although the latest changes to food allergen labelling – Regulation No. 1169/2011, the Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC) – were published in October 2011, came into effect in December 2011, and will become compulsory after the three-year transition period ends in December 2014, the changes and their implications have only recently started to filter through and be felt in the allergy and ‘free from’ community, now that the Food Standards Agency published new advice on the changes in August.

Recent blogs by Alexa at YesNoBananas here, here, here and here, and the comments, are worth your time. She has blogged on several issues which I don’t intend to tackle, including ‘may contain’ labelling, which the new regulations don’t address, a failure my colleague Michelle at called ‘A wasted opportunity’, and both have also talked about the regulations relating to food outlets, specifically the worrying prospect of staff being permitted to ‘verbally’ inform diners of food allergens, without an obligation to provide it in written format. I broadly agree with what both have to say.

When it comes to prepacked foods, these are the key changes / consequences of the legislation:

* allergen warning / ‘contains’ boxes will no longer be permitted …
* allergens are to be highlighted / italicised / underlined / coloured in the ingredients lists …
* generic ‘allergy advice statements’, directing consumers to the list of ingredients, will be optional, and will in effect replace any ‘contains’-type allergen boxes.

These have understandably upset a few ‘free from’ / allergy commentators. I’m less certain of my 'anti' stance, and in some respects pro, and want to discuss my thoughts on this here, and also the FSA’s guidance document, and how all this relates to coeliacs, given there has been some alarm that references to ‘gluten’ will be removed.

Gluten and the FSA Guidance

I have been emailing the FSA on how gluten issues will be effected by the legislation, and after a lot of toing and froing, this is my understanding. (I will use ‘bolding’ as the example highlighting method, throughout.)

Wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, triticale etc are gluten grains, and have to be named and highlighted in the ingredients.

* Where the name of the grain is featured in the ingredient’s name, either the grain or the whole ingredient must be highlighted. Eg “wheat flour” or “wheat flour” are acceptable.

* Where the name of the grain is not featured in the ingredient’s name, it must be supplied alongside. Eg “cous cous (wheat)”

* The addition of the word ‘gluten’ is optional in both such cases. Eg “wheat flour (gluten)” and “wheat flour” are both permissible. (Sarah of the Sugarpuffish blog has an example of the latter here.)

* The word ‘gluten’ is compulsory only when gluten itself is the ingredient. Eg “gluten (wheat)”

My key concern here is that “spelt flour” will be acceptable, without necessary reference to gluten. We all know how many people get this wrong – coeliacs included. This could be partly resolved by insisting, as I have argued before, that spelt is referred to as ‘spelt wheat’. I’m also surprised that the British Retail Consortium, in their own advisory document to members, have recommended that a parenthesised ‘gluten’ not be used. Why?

* Oats are considered a gluten-containing grain, and will continue to be treated as such, and therefore highlighted. Only gluten-free oats can be used in products for which overall gluten-free status is claimed.

So a ‘gluten-free’ front of pack labelling will ‘trump’ any appearance of oats in the ingredients list. I expect this will confuse some coeliacs too: seeing a boldened or highlighted ‘oats’ in the ingredients list might lead them to the conclusion a possibly safe product is not safe. Anyway, the rule seems to be: avoid anything mentioning oats that does not confirm overall GF status.

* In effect replacing the previous optional ‘contains’ allergen boxes will be a new generic and also optional allergy statement box, in which manufacturers can refer consumers back to the ingredients list. An example possible statement is: “For allergens, including cereals containing gluten, see ingredients in bold.”

The FSA published a leaflet, Advice on Food Allergen Labelling, in August 2013, which, while helpful, includes a small section entitled ‘No more references to gluten’ on page 7, which I’ve found misleading and the possible source of confusion. Granted, the ‘contains gluten’ statement will no longer appear on labelling, but ‘no more references to gluten’ to me implies much more than just that, and as the examples above demonstrate, gluten may appear in a number of ways. On page 11, the FSA say “No more references to gluten in the voluntary allergen statement”. Again, I find this problematic, in fact incorrect, as the (new) voluntary allergen statement example in the previous paragraph does mention gluten.

A note on milk and milk products.

Unlike gluten grains, which must be named, the word ‘milk’ does not necessarily have to appear if a milk product such as cream, yogurt or butter is an ingredient, although these ingredients will need to be highlighted in such a case.

So, “yogurt (milk)” and “yogurt” are both acceptable.

I queried this with the FSA and they told me: “General food labelling rules already set out that the term ‘milk’ can only be used for cows’ milk (milk from any other animal has to specify which animal it is from.) Legally, products such as cream, butter, cheese and yoghurt can only be made from animal milks and this is why it is not mandatory to label, for example, ‘cream’ as ‘cream (milk)’. But because allergenic ingredients will have to be emphasised in the ingredients list, these products will have to be emphasised.”

In practice, manufacturers will probably add ‘milk’, especially in cases where it may not be so obvious – eg “Quark (from milk)” – but I can’t help feeling concerned that it is not obligatory.

Bye bye, box
As Alexa mentions in one of her posts, the Anaphylaxis Campaign have pointed out that the disappearance of the ‘contains’ allergen box is a consequence of the regulation that stipulates duplication of information is not permitted. As ‘contains’ information is now incorporated into the ingredients list, the ‘contains’ allergen box is by consequence to be sacrificed.

Allergen boxes are / were unquestionably useful, especially to those dealing with multiple sensitivities: quick glance, an allergen spotted, product straight back on shelf. A handy time-saver. That they were optional (and that there was no stipulation that all allergens had to be included in them) is no reason to do away with them – why not just make them obligatory, as Alexa and others have said?

I also feel that an allergen box is more ‘impactful’: it says Pay Attention This Is Serious more than a bit of bold or italics is ever going to convey. I fear in cases of very long ingredients lists, people will ‘speed read’ through the list impatiently during stressful shopping trips, perhaps with children. Teens or students may also be more cavalier in this regard. Further – is it possible people, especially youngsters, will fail to find an allergen box and mistakenly assume a product is safe?

(I can’t help also wondering what people without allergies are going to make of the bolding? Will they ‘get’ it or jump to wrong conclusions about it? Ingredients labelling is for everyone, after all.)

But on the other hand...
I am torn when I start thinking of pro-arguments. Inspite of the risk of incurring the fury of friends and colleagues, I’ll talk about them – with the acknowledgement that I do not have food sensitivities or ever shop for someone with them …

I can’t help feel that having allergens / ingredients in one place is potentially a good thing, though perhaps this will only become apparent in the longer-term. There will only be one place to look – the ingredients list – and so no more looking for an allergen box, as none will exist. The ingredient list is usually more prominent and visible – there is ‘more’ of it, after all – and with the highlighting it should become more so. Reading ingredients lists may have ‘knock-on’ nutritional benefits to consumers: more awareness of other ingredients you are eating – especially important when on a restricted diet.

As allergen boxes have never been compulsory or necessarily exhaustive, many consumers default to the ingredients list anyway (a commenter on Sarah’s blog stated that she didn’t trust the allergen box); and surely those who don’t find their allergen in an allergen box still read the ingredients to double-check anyway?

One listing means one less place to get things wrong / misprint stuff: manufacturers will have to focus their attention on one thing, the ingredients list, and get that right. I also wonder whether this might help those with allergies to foods other than the 14 ‘official’ allergens. Do they – and indeed others – know which foods are and are not among the 14? What if you’re allergic to nuts and mushrooms, or to wheat and coconuts? Which system will work better for you?

But – BUT – in order to work, I feel the highlighting in the ingredients has to be so prominent, so obvious, so as to make it easy to pick out the allergens almost as quickly as it takes to read them in an allergen box. With the problematic lack of standardisation – will it be italics, coloured, bold? – I expect this may fail to be the case. The FSA expects most companies to use bold, but there will surely be variation, and when ingredients lists are long eyes may start to water, and it is this that could ultimately make me side with the current dissenters to the legislation. Mel Pig in the Kitchen posted a not great example here.

In two minds ...

One minute I think it’s insane that there will no longer be ‘contains’ statements, the next I’m pulled the other way – what are ingredients lists if not ‘contains’ statements? And have we thought about how ingredients will be highlighted if all are allergens? And what about exempt ingredients derived from gluten grains, such as wheat-based glucose syrup? How will the changes impact our correct understanding of that on labelling? The questions are endless...

I’ll leave you with this thought: the term ‘May contain’ plus allergen will be allowed – but the term ‘contains’ or ‘does contain’ plus allergen will not be allowed. Seems mad, doesn’t it? There’s an exception, and that’s when there is no list of ingredients on the product, as might be the case in a single-ingredient food. So you might see ‘contains fish’ on a packet containing a whole salmon staring straight at you, but not say on a carton of soup, where blended fish may be ‘lurking’.

I suspect this one will run and run, until next year, and I look forward to hearing more views from those with various perspectives, and more response from the FSA, which I understand may be on its way.

Thanks to Amy Cope of FSA for patiently answering my queries.

If you're looking for a primer in UK/EU food allergen labelling, I can strongly recommend Louise Jones's ( excellent post here.

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