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EU labelling regulations: What do they mean?

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The EU will introduce new regulations on the listing of allergens on food labels this year. Food lawyer Cesare Varallo explains what the legislation means

This year, with the application of the EU Reg. 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers, major labelling changes will be put in place by food business operators.

For many, one of the most important aspects of the regulation will be allergens labelling. Not least because of the severe consequences to a consumer’s health which non compliance could bring.

What does the regulation say?

The regulation establishes the mandatory indication of any “ingredient or processing aid listed in Annex II or derived from a substance or product listed in Annex II causing allergies or intolerances used in the manufacture or preparation of a food and still present in the finished product, even if in an altered form”.

Annex II provides 14 categories of substances. Such as, cereals containing glutens, crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts and nuts, soybeans, mustard, celery, sesame seeds, lupine, molluscs and sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre in terms of the total SO.

The allergens should be indicated in the list of ingredients. To keep the label clear and avoid repetition, the indication “Contain: …. [allergen]” is permitted only where an ingredient list is not present (i.e. wine “Contain: sulphites”).

It is also fundamental to remember that allergens should be indicated “with a clear reference to the name of the substance or product as listed in Annex II”.

An exemption will exist in cases where the name of the food clearly refers to the substance or product concerned. There are ongoing discussions about this point. For example, it is practically impossible to make cheese without milk, so under this exemption will it then be possible to avoid listing milk as an allergen in the ingredients list?

The most cautious answer should be no, since the term cheese is not provided by the Annex II of the Regulation, but the final answer to this question probably will follow only with the practical application of the Regulation. As it stands, most of the more influential guidelines about the regulation (DEFRA in UK, FoodDrinkEurope/Eurocommerce), opted for the more permissive solution, that is is not necessary to declare milk as an allergen in cheese, butter etc.

The regulation also says, “Where several ingredients or processing aids of a food originate from a single substance or product listed in Annex II, the labelling shall make it clear for each ingredient or processing aid concerned”.

This principle, called “repetition principle”, clearly establishes that each time an allergen is present in an ingredient it should be declared.

Finally, the name of the substance or product as listed in Annex II “shall be emphasised through a typeset that clearly distinguishes it from the rest of the list of ingredients, for example by means of the font, style or background colour”. The way to emphasise the allergen is given to the choice of the food business operator, but for practical reason the most adopted solution is to highlight the name of the substance in bold.

The Regulation does not cover possible allergen cross contamination or “free from” claims, so they could be put on labels like any other voluntary information, unless they are misleading for consumers.

According to the regulation, the European Commission must also adopt implementing measures that detail how the requirements relate to voluntary information on “may contain” labeling. At this stage it is not sure if and when the Commission will provide a measure, but surely a position on this point would be useful.

In practice, we find too many products with long lists of possible allergens. This often is a result of excessive precaution by food business operators. This limits the choice of the consumers, as well as the availability of the company’s products to consumers. It is significant that consumers suffering from allergies are also asking for review regulations about this sort of voluntary information. Seeking, for example, more clarity on what is considered a “trace”.

An increasing awareness about allergens and the possible outcomes of non-compliance on public health means food business operators need to not only be well acquainted with this new provision, but also to implement strong allergen management programs to avoid or limit cross-contaminations and unintentional presence of allergens in their products.

Cesare Varallo is a food lawyer and founder of foodlawlatest.com