The new look allergen labelling (compulsory from December 2014)

Slowly but surely, the new look allergen labels are creeping onto the supermarket shelves. By December 2014, they will have completely ousted the old style labels and “contains” boxes will be a thing of the past.

Allergens highlighted and “contains” boxes axed

From 13 December 2014, UK food allergen labelling law is changing. In short:

  • Allergy warning boxes will no longer be permitted (so no more “contains: nuts”).
  • Allergens must be highlighted in the ingredients list (for example, in bolditalics, underlined or highlighted in a different colour).
  • “May contain” warnings will remain unchanged.
  • Allergen information will also have to be provided for foods sold loose and when eating out.

(For more details, see Deciphering UK food allergen labelling law.)

From December 2014, where a food contains any of the top 14 allergens as an intentionally added ingredient, these must be highlighted (for example, in bold) in the ingredients list.  The Food Standards Agency leaflet Advice on food allergen labelling (page 5) gives the following example illustrating the difference between old and new style labelling:

Old and new style food labels

Allergen warning boxes (or “contains” boxes) will no longer be allowed. The Anaphylaxis Campaign has reported that the rationale behind this is to avoid the repetition of ingredients information on a label.

The British Retail Consortium has recommended that, in place of the current allergen warning box (for example “contains: peanut”), the label should instead say:

Allergy Advice

For allergens, [including cereals containing gluten,] see ingredients in bold*.

(* or italics, underlined etc – depending on the company’s chosen highlighting option.)

So instead of “allergy advice” panels (aka “contains” boxes) which look like this:

allergy_advice_1

 

… we will instead see labels in this type of format:

photo

Transitional labelling

Some companies have already begun to phase in the new look labelling. As contains boxes aren’t officially outlawed until December 2014, some companies are currently using a mish-mash of the two systems. So, for now, some food labels display the new look ingredients list (where the allergens are highlighted) but also include a contains box in the style we’ve all been used to. Here’s an example:

Transitional label

The end of “contains boxes”

Back in September, there was an outcry about the axing of contains boxes (for details of both sides of the argument, see Alex Gazzola’s post Food labels: may contain ‘may contain’; may not contain ‘does contain’).

At present, contains boxes serve as a handy way of discounting a product, if your allergen is listed. So, if I pick up a packet of biscuits and read “contains: nuts”, then it goes straight back on the supermarket shelf. I don’t have to waste my time reading the entire ingredients list: I know at a glance that the product is unsuitable. However, as contains boxes are entirely voluntary, if your allergen ISN’T listed in the box (or if the manufacturer has simply decided not to include a contains box at all), you cannot assume the product is safe. You must still read the full ingredients list to check for any mention of nuts.

Under the new system, the idea is that allergic shoppers will be able to scan the ingredients list and quickly see if their allergen(s) is listed. On the new look labels I have seen so far, it has been possible to immediately see the highlighted allergens. But, admittedly, the type of companies who are already introducing the new look labels may well be shining examples of best practice. There may be poor examples yet to hit the shelves.

One thing I’ve not been able to do is to fully “trust the highlighting”, I still read the entire ingredients list. So, for old style labels:

  • I read the “contains” box.
  • If it says “contains nuts”, I dismiss the product.
  • If it doesn’t say “contains nuts”. I read the full ingredients list.

With the new look labels:

  • I read the highlighted ingredients.
  • If any type of nut is highlighted, I dismiss the product.
  • If I don’t spot a reference to nuts in bold, then I read the full ingredients list…

Should that final step be necessary under the new system? Contains boxes were voluntary, so you had to double check. Under the new system, you should, in theory, from December 2014, be able to rely on the highlighted terms. Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever get out of the habit of reading the whole thing (and then often reading it again, just to make sure…).

From what I’ve seen of the new labelling so far, I’m cautiously optimistic that once the format of the new style labels becomes familiar, they’ll be no more onerous than what we have now. And as the law was changed back in 2011 (companies have simply had a three year transition period to comply with the new rules), and applies Europe-wide, I can’t see contains boxes being saved at this late stage. As Michelle Berriedale-Johnson from Foodsmatter put it “we obviously ain’t gonna win this one”.

The formatting requirements for the new style labels

The ingredients list must (according to Article 13 of the Food Information for Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 ) be:

“marked in a conspicuous place in such a way as to be easily visible, clearly legible and, where appropriate, indelible. It shall not in any way be hidden, obscured, detracted from or interrupted by any other written or pictorial matter or any other intervening material.”

The text must be in a font size where the x-height is at least 1.2mm.

Where to report poor labelling

What happens if you come across a label that is far from “clearly legible”, where the words swim before your eyes and your head hurts trying to pick out the allergens?

I believe the answer to this is “report it to the Food Standards Agency”, so the required standards can be enforced. Here’s a link to the FSA’s page on the Food Information Regulation, which sets out details of who to contact, depending on where you live in the UK.

 

13 comments

  1. The boxes I prefer are the ones that state in large letters on the front what they are Free From. However, I guess packaging could get a little crowded, if food products did that for every thing! What I DO think they should do is stipulate that the ingredients are printed a bit larger – some are quite hard to read – or am I just getting old??

    1. Yes – be great if ingredients lists in larger font! (or maybe I’m getting old too?! – never knew quite how poor my eyesight was until started reading food labels…)

  2. Hi

    I noticed the new labelling in Tesco’s and questioned it as there are now lots of products that show the allergen in bold and then have a note at the end “may contain nuts” where as before it would say “recipe no nuts, ingredients no nuts, factory no nuts but cannot guarantee nut free” so before I would have brought the product and now I will not. I asked if they changed the way they had maufactured the product but they didnt really answer my question and just said it was due to the new labelling. The thing is it says it on nearly everything now (baked beans being one and I wonder if its just them being lazy. Anyway I am shopping elsewhere now only went to Tesco as it over the road.
    Just something to be aware of.

  3. Hi there,
    Firstly, can I just say – what a helpful and informative post this is about the new labelling laws. I have started my first blog this year: http://www.gononuts.wordpress.com and was looking to post myself about the new labelling for allergies. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I saw you mention the Anaphylaxis Campaign and went on their website: I was very impressed with it. I did a post on my blog about it and put a reference to your blog site in, as this is where I found out about it. I hope you don’t mind? There has already been a click to your blog, so hopefully it will get you some vistors. I love your blog and wanted other people to find it 🙂 I am very new to blogging (gononuts.wordpress.com is my very first blog!), but am really enjoying it. Keep up the great posts. Amy 🙂

    1. Hi Amy – thanks for your message – great that you like the site! (and thank you for referencing Nutmums in your post). Glad you’ve found the Anaphylaxis Campaign website too – heaps of useful information on there (and their helpline is great too, if you ever need individual advice). All the best, Louise

  4. Hi Louise

    It would appear Tesco’s are putting it on most things. I read the small bottles of lemonade they make and even these say it too! I think it must because before they put “ingredients cannot garantee nut free” on ones before where “factory was no nuts, recipe no nuts”.

    So frustrating, I think Sainsburys are being better and only putting it on when there is a risk of contamination due to methods used and are wording it differently

  5. I was completely unaware of this new labeling system and I had a really bad experience as a consequence of this change. My son likes Kinder eggs and I buy them regularly as they are the nut free. A few weeks ago I got for him a little bag of Mini Kinder eggs in WHSmith. After looking for the ‘allergy advice’ box and not seeing it anywhere I was pretty confident they wouldn’t contain any nuts as usual. Not a pleasant surprise to discover they had 6% hazelnut filling after my son started feeling really unwell. Pyriton helped him keep the reaction under control but he was unwell for a couple of days. It is the first time I have such a serious accident since he was diagnosed 10 years ago.

    1. Hi – I’m sorry to hear about your son’s reaction (and glad the anti-histamine did the trick). I’ve been caught out before with a Kinder product too – luckily when it was just me grabbing a snack on the go for myself. For some reason, I used to have the impression they were a nut free brand, when, like you say, some of their chocolate contains hazelnut. At least from December 2014, the allergens will HAVE to be highlighted in the ingredients list – and so will hopefully be easy to pick out.

  6. Wonderfully written article that was quite informative. I was however wondering how this would affect things like farmers markets with people selling home made cakes and jams. Does this mean they will become a thing off the past due to the insanity of some poor little old lady having to get nutritional information for the chocolate cake she has made? or have i just got the wrong end of the stick?

    1. Thank you! Interesting question. I can’t see why it wouldn’t apply to farmers’ markets too. I found this FSA guidance for Scottish farmers’ markets – which sets out that, under the current law, allergen information should be provided for prepacked foods sold at farmers’ markets (http://www.scottishfarmersmarkets.co.uk/documents/FarmersMarketFSA.pdf). See also p9 of the FSA Advice on Food Allergen Labelling: http://multimedia.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/publication/allergy-leaflet.pdf. So it seems, if selling non-prepacked food at a farmers’ market from December 2014, the little old lady wouldn’t need to list every last ingredient, but she would need to jot down (or at least be able to confirm verbally) which of the top 14 allergens are included in the ingredients.

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