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 bold, italics, 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:
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:
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:
… we will instead see labels in this type of format:
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:
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.