Allergen labelling guidance 2020

Between late January and early March this year, the Food Standards Agency conducted a welcome open consultation on the proposed updating of their Allergen Labelling Technical Guidance, which was perhaps overdue a review anyway, but was also more urgently required in order to reflect new allergen labelling requirements for PPDS foods (i.e. Pre-Packed for Direct Sale foods) — popularly known as Natasha’s Law.

The FSA have today published a summary of stakeholder comments and their own responses to each, which you can read here.

And they’ve also published the revised document — Food Allergen Labelling and Information Requirements: Technical Guidance — which you can read here.

The bulk of the Guidance is divided into three parts — Guidance for Businesses providing Prepacked food (Part 1), non-prepacked food (Part 2) and PPDS (Part 3).

I had restricted myself to submitting a single comment concerning the draft reasoning for the requirement of gluten free oats to be emphasised (namely: “… as the product will still contain some gluten”), which I felt potentially misleading to coeliacs who can tolerate GF oats. I’m glad that this was taken on board and removed, with a clarification that the reason GF oats must be emphasised is because all oats, irrespective of gluten status, are considered ‘top 14’ allergens — a point many manufacturers continue to get wrong:

I know one issue of long-standing concern among the food allergy community was the allowance in the guidance for the expression “may contain (traces of) nuts” to cover both tree nuts and peanuts. This has now been removed, but does not appear to have been replaced by anything new, despite the stakeholder response summary suggesting wording had been ‘altered’. I imagine anyway that Precautionary Allergen Labelling guidance is an entirely separate issue — ‘may contain’ versus ‘does contain’.

There seems to be welcome clarification on another common source of confusion, concerning whether coconut, chestnuts and (especially, in my view) pine nuts are allergens covered in the ‘tree nut’ grouping. Whether or not they should be is the subject of another argument, but they presently are not, and I’m glad to see the guidance articulate that emphasising such ingredients is wrong:

However, most of the comments submitted to the FSA regard PPDS foods, and it is interesting to read through those concerns on pages 9–10 on the response document. The most valid ones relate to the consumer being able to identify what is and what is not PPDS, and whether there is a risk that an unlabelled product which technically qualifies as a non-prepacked food might give a false sense of security to the purchaser — essentially what the Ednan-Laperouse family fell victim to. This all looks set to be addressed through information campaigns in the run up to the deadline for the implementation of the legislation (October 2021).

My feeling on reading the actual Part 3 of the Guidance re: PPDS is that the FSA have done a pretty good job in keeping it brief. There’s a reasonably clear and brief definition of PPDS for instance:

Following that there’s a three-point flow chart to ‘test’ whether or not a food is PPDS, and some examples too. While there are still possible sources of confusion, for instance with regards to sites and premises, I suspect the vast majority of real-life cases will be straightforward, but a few may not be …

The Guidance gives the example of a hot-dog served on a cardboard tray as non-PPDS, because “it is packaged in a way that the food can be altered without opening or changing the packaging” — a long squirt of tomato ketchup would do it — which as per clause 90 appears to be the test for what does and doesn’t constitute “pre-packaging”. I can’t imagine the consumer understanding or even bothering to attempt to understand the subtle distinction here, and I wonder whether it will merely result in some food providers changing the way they prepare and present food for sale to avoid full labelling, rather against the spirit, one might argue, of Natasha’s Law.

Nevertheless, this guidance, to me, seems to lay the foundation from which food service providers can start to implement the required changes, and the FSA can build to inform the allergic, intolerant or coeliac consumer. No doubt over the coming year we’ll begin to see how it moves forward.

16 Comments

  1. Ruth Holroyd

    I think my wifi just lost my comment so a briefer one now… I’m lazy like that. Brilliant blog and thanks for sharing this, and challenging the regs. I hope not too many try to sneak around Natashas law by using open packaging, as you mention above. Love reading your bogs. xxx

    Reply
    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Love reading your typos! X

      Reply
  2. Edward Simmonds

    The emphasising of Gluten Free Oats needs to be enforced more. I have seen some brands who fail to do this. I know someone who has an allergy to Oats (but not to Barley or Rye or Wheat though) and it makes zero difference whether they are Ordinary Oats or Gluten Free Oats and they get the same reaction from both. Also i know a small amount of Coeliacs can still get a bad reaction from Gluten Free Oats too. So it is certainly quite important that they are emphasised.

    What i am curious about is why the allergen regulations mention the eight tree nuts of, Almond, Brazil, Cashew, Hazelnut, Macadamia, Pecan, Pistachio, Walnut, but then also Queensland Nut as well? Queensland Nut is just simply another name for Macadamia Nut however the use of the term Queensland Nut is non existent in the UK! So why cause confusion by including this term in the regulations? Also all eight tree nuts also have many other names (many of which are more common than Queensland Nut) so why just single out this one! I think this is just likely to cause confusion and is unnecessary so should ideally be removed.

    Personally i think some others like, Chestnuts, Pine Nuts, Acorn Nuts, Beech Nuts, should be included as they are likely to cause a reaction in some people with Tree Nut allergens. Coconuts probably do not need to be included though as they are related to Dates and Palm Oil and unlikely to cause a reaction to people with Tree Nut allergies (although Coconut allergies are possible). In the USA they have tons of nuts included in the Tree Nut allergen (but some are unnecessary like Shea Nuts though which i have never heard of anyone having an allergen to).

    Reply
    1. Alex G (Post author)

      It’s rare that I pretty much agree with everything someone leaving a long comment says — but I think it applies here!
      Yes, there are some peculiar nuts on the US’s ‘tree nut’ grouping — I wrote about it here: https://www.allergy-insight.com/allergens-the-big-8-the-big-14/
      If I’m to disagree on anything it’s possibly on acorn — such a rare food, and I’m not sure there has been research on it, but I might go take a look …

      Reply
      1. Edward Simmonds

        Acorn Nuts (which are also known as Oak Nuts as well) and Beech Nuts are mainly just eaten by foragers only. It is extremely rare to find anyone commercially produced products with them. Although there is a stall at my local market (usually in the winter) with someone who sells packets of roasted and salted mixed, Acorn Nuts, Beech Nuts, Chestnuts, and Pine Nuts, of which she foragers herself (which is the only place i have seen them sold). So you will occasionally find them for sale. But i think they are definitely likely to cause a reaction for some people with Tree Nut allergens. Acorn Nuts and Beech Nuts are both in the same family as Chestnuts.

        Interesting blog post you linked to there! The fact they have included Shea Nuts is like including Tiger Nuts (a tuber)! I am not sure why they decided to include those. Gingko Nuts and Lychee Nuts also stand out as strange ones to include. I think someone with a Tree Nut allergen would be quite unlikely to react to those either. They are also incredibly rare to find in the USA or any Western country.

        On an unrelated note i can definitely see many food providers changing the way they package things to get around these new allergen laws as you suggest in this article. Or perhaps some will stop packaging things and just put them in a bag or container when the customer buys it. I think many smaller cafes and market stalls and places like that might just switch to open packaging to avoid the new labelling requirements. But we shall have to see what happens! At least they certainly have a long time to prepare so i hope most businesses will actually comply and just start labelling things!

        Reply
  3. Harvey Addington

    I definitely agree regarding the Gluten Free Oats needing to be emphasised. This needs to be made more clear to all manufacturers.

    The very worst offender is Kirstys Free From who fail to emphasise the Gluten Free Oats on their Beef Lasagne product. The reason i say they are the worst offender is because i would expect for a company that was created with the sole purpose of manufacturing Free From Food to know about such allergen regulations. The owner of this company – Kirsty Henshaw – has even told me in an email that she believes Gluten Free Oats are not a top fourteen allergen and are exempt from needing to be emphasised. This company is even claiming their new factory is free of all fourteen top allergens even though they handle Gluten Free Oats there.

    It really amazes me how many manufacturers get this wrong and some refuse to even change. I just hope that nobody with a serious Oat allergy eats one of these many products without realising because the company has not correctly declared it.

    Reply
    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Hi Harvey. I don’t know about Kirsty’s, and perhaps it’s unfair to state they’re the worst, as a lot of brands make this error, and while some have corrected it, some continue to do fail to emphasise their GF oats. You can report incorrectly labelled products. I did for a while, but then gave up because it was laborious. More here if the response from Kirsty’s is unsatisfactory to you (https://www.allergy-insight.com/how-easy-it-to-report-non-compliant-food-allergen-labelling/). I’ll let them know so they can have a right to reply. Best wishes, Alex.

      Reply
      1. Harvey Addington

        Thank you for your reply. I will have a go at reporting this company as they are still completely denying that Gluten Free Oats have to be emphasised. It is a shame that they make reporting things like this so difficult though but i shall give it a go. I do find it rather shocking that a company specialising in Free From Foods (who you would think would know better) is in complete denial that the Gluten Free Oats have to be emphasised.

        Reply
        1. Alex G (Post author)

          Perhaps it’s been made easier since I last did it. Let me know how you get on. I did alert Kirsty’s and she has answered on Twitter, reconfirming that she doesn’t believe the need to emphasise GF oats. I referred her to Clause 32 mentioned above, so hopefully that will be enough for them to sort it.

          This is a long standing issue, which I’ve previously covered here:
          https://www.allergy-insight.com/schrodingers-oats/
          and here:
          https://www.allergy-insight.com/gf-oats-labelled-an-allergen/

          I would have thought it’d be put to bed by now, but clearly not ..

          A.

          Reply
          1. Harvey Addington

            Many thanks for that. I will attempt to report it this evening and shall let you know how i get on. They never seem to make things like this easy though! The one and only other time i tried to report something was about five or six years ago when a product was sold as a “Wheat Free” food but contained Spelt (which is a type of Wheat) but i gave up as it was so difficult and i kept getting passed around to other agencies! So fingers crossed it is easier now!

            I just seen your tweet on the Twitter to her. I sent her the same link when i emailed them and she is still denying that they have to be emphasised. So it seems that she doesn’t even believe an official document. As for her claim about myself – “People with no knowledge of manufacturing thinking they know better than us.” – i may not have any knowledge of manufacturing but on this occasion it seems i do know better when it comes to these rules!

            Hopefully if my complaint works then the FSA can get in contact with them directly and advise them on the rules. It is a shame that this failure to emphasise Gluten Free Oats is still such an issue.

          2. Alex G (Post author)

            Yes, I’ve seen issues in the past with spelt not declared as wheat, but that one seems much better now.

            I can only guess but I suspect it must be a huge job to reprint labels and recalls are expensive. I’m not sure whether over-stickering is possible, or it can be dealt with in a way that’s less of an inconvenience to brands. Let’s see what happens ….

          3. Alex G (Post author)

            Harvey – I didn’t expect this at all, but they’ve withdrawn the product. Thanks for setting the wheels in motion. I’ve credited you on Twitter (belatedly – my apologies). https://www.allergyuk.org/information-and-advice/allergy-alerts/1323-kirstys-lasagne-250g-400g

  4. Harvey Addington

    Yes i just noticed that! So it seems my complaint has worked! I actually was not expecting this at all! Credit to them for actually recalling it and to the FSA for acting so quickly!

    I have to say i am quite impressed at the response of the FSA on this. I emailed the FSA (and their equivalents in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland) using their email addresses on their website (as i gave up on using the official reporting facility as it makes it so difficult to report anything) and i received very quick replies to my emails from all four of them. They all said they would investigate this and take action. I also emailed all of the supermarkets that stocked this product too.

    So it seems it has worked. I think the FSA must have contacted Kirstys and told them that Gluten Free Oats must be emphasised. So at least Kirstys should now be aware of this.

    I am very pleased at this. Many people do not realise that it is also possible to have a separate Oat allergy (where you are allergic to Oats but not allergic to Barley or Rye or Wheat) and people with an Oat allergy are always allergic to all types of Oats regardless of whether they are Gluten Free Oats or not. So that is one reason why i think it is important for companies to get this right.

    I have to say i have not been impressed with the replies from Kirsty Henshaw or Rachael Henshaw that i have seen on Twitter or to their replies to my emails. I shall just say that neither of them really have a very polite or professional attitude. But at least this issue is sorted now.

    Thank you for your help with this and for highlighting this issue on Twitter too!

    Reply
    1. Alex G (Post author)

      I think I will try the email approach with the FSA in future, then!
      Thanks, Harvey.

      Reply
      1. Harvey Addington

        No worries. If it helps for future reference these are the four emails i sent it to:

        England: helpline@food.gov.uk

        Scotland: enquiries@fss.scot

        Northern Ireland: infofsani@food.gov.uk

        Wales: walesadminteam@food.gov.uk

        It certainly seems that this is a better way to report such things. So much simpler than the other long winded confusing method.

        Reply
        1. Alex G (Post author)

          Thanks!

          Reply

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