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.


  1. Pig in the Kitchen

    Ah Alex, I'm liking your pros and cons approach!

    And, I'm wondering if all the argy bargy (literary phrase) surrounding the labelling will have the very beneficial effect of making consumers so terrified that they'll read absolutely EVERYTHING everywhere on the packet. And then if they're like me, they'll conclude that it's far simpler to cook/bake from scratch and trundle home without anything. Annoying, but life with allergies IS annoying!

    Always a pleasure to read your incisive prose 🙂

  2. Pig in the Kitchen

    Oh and thanks for the name check. The supreme irony of the horrible labelling that I photographed, is that it was in the hospital cafe during my daughter's allergy clinic appointment 🙂

  3. Alex G

    Thanks Mel – Always a pleasure to have you stop by!

  4. Theri14

    Love the title to your post and found it very interesting. I do disagree on one point, I find the allergy boxes much easier to find than the ingredients lists sometimes, particularly when there are multiple lists in different languages. We do deal with several severe allergies, particularly milk (which can be hidden in various guises and the new rules do not say that from milk must be specified), nuts and eggs. I can see the point of having all the information in one place but only if it is going to be easier to read. I am totally unconvinced that this will be the case. Yes, info will all be there but no standardisation of colour, size and contrast. Having the box and the list provides a fail safe, I don't think manufacturers will be any more or less careful because there is only the list to think about With the list and the box it takes 2 mistakes for an allergen to be missed, now it will only take one. On a personal note I am having problems with my eyes and even with my glasses find it very difficult and a strain to read long ingredients lists. Only having to read some lists does make my life much easier and I think that even for people whose eyesight is perfect this will be the case. I am trying very hard to be objective about this subject but I remember the days before there were any warning boxes-back when my eyesight was perfect and we were only dealing with intolerances- I really do not want a return to that. And again, great title, it really does point out the major flaw to these new rules.

  5. Alex G

    I'd not considered the point with multiple language lists at all – a very valid one. Also take your point about 2 mistakes vs. 1 mistake … there so much great input into this discussion online, here and in other blogs and comments. I wonder whether all these issues were heard or considered by the policy makers? Thanks for stopping by – and glad you liked the title …

  6. Sam/ The Happy Coeliac

    Great post – I'm still undecided about these changes myself. I've often thought that having a table with the top 14 allergens with ticks and crosses would be a good solution, but then there is the problem of more chances to make mistakes.

    However, here in Holland many, if not most, manufacturers have switched over to the new guidelines so I thought I'd give my perspective. Ingredients lists with allergens emboldened make it about a million times easier to read (and I don't yet read Dutch very well). Your eye skips through the bold bits and you can quickly see whether you can have them. Additionally, one of the supermarkets here, Albert Heijn, puts "glutenvrij" and "melkvrij" symbols on ALL its own brand products that are gluten/milk free – even on things like chopped tomatoes, salami, yoghurt, which is another massive help.

    I haven't noticed an allergen box since I've been out here so I assume they've been proactive about changing their labelling in time. Aside from still being confused as to whether I should read the ingredients in Dutch, French or German (sometimes I read all three, just to be safe!), it is incredibly easy to shop gluten-free here.

  7. Sam/ The Happy Coeliac

    Only just seen the examples given from Sugarpuffish and Pig in the Kitchen – they are pretty awful. Maybe the Europeans have a better eye for clear typography? I haven't seen anything that bad since I've been out here!

  8. Alex G

    Thanks Sam. Think it's the case (possibly from one of Alexa's posts) that the allergen box has never really been used in mainland Europe, so that might be why you've never seen one. Though it does sound as if the UK manufacturers might benefit from taking a look at some Dutch examples by the sounds of it … might be worth doing a blog on it, with images?! 🙂 Thanks for commenting, as always.

  9. Sam/ The Happy Coeliac

    Yes, a blog like that is in the works. 😉

  10. Bev and Ollie "O"

    As we have more unusual allergies in addition to the ones that are usually labelled it makes little difference. My son is also allergic to potato, peas and lentils so I have always to check the ingredients list as well as the extra box.

  11. Bev and Ollie "O"

    On the language issue. I have had to learn the relevant words in Dutch since I live in Belgium.

  12. clinicalalimentary

    As a dietitian I am finding that I now have to explain both types of labelling to people who are newly diagnosed with coeliac disease, allergy and food intolerances. I think this may lead to some confusion initially as people have a lot to take in when newly diagnosed. Also it is not just a matter of explaining the labelling system – you need a knowledge of the idiosyncrasies that the labelling produces and this can take some time before a knowledge is built up. I think we will have to wait and see what happens in the next few months.

  13. DavidJ_GF

    Personally I’m feeling positive about the new labelling laws, thinks it’s a move forward. Honestly do wish the Allergen Box was made compulsory, with similar rules in place for that. But do very much see this as a positive step. Think we need to remember, as anyone in a large organisation knows… Trying to reach an agreement in any type of meeting that involves many different parties and stake holders, is not an easy task. So I imagine getting an outcome like this on a European scale probably was far from easy. Obviously a big compromise. But generally do feel overall this will be an improvement to the inconsistent labelling we have now…

    Yes, I think making the Allergen Box compulsory would have been better. But what I think is key to remember that it has been voluntary up till now. With far from everyone doing it and with no obligation to get that information in it correct. So how could we have trusted that! Of course that opens up a whole bigger agreement around deliberate ingredients etc. Like the Marmite-gate or Horse meat issue! At least now we will move onto something that is compulsory and will have all the information in one place.

    I have to disagree Alex with your point about risk of speed scanning ingredients and missing things. I think this is a bigger risk currently and I have made that mistake myself. But actually using the new ingredient labels that I’ve seen on some products (Uncle Bens & Waitrose Snacks) found it to be a lot easier. Actually spotted that Uncle Bens rice had Yeast in it, had missed it before. So as I know yeast is normally grown on barley, I choose to skip this product from now on. Obviously a consciences manufacture should put “May Contain” on their product etc.

    Plus completely agree that not encompassing “May Contain” into this labelling laws is a massive missed opportunity. Think this would have been a far greater benefit for anyone with an Allergy! I am slightly concerned that with the implementation of these rules though, that any May Contain information may be forgotten or left off from now on…?

    I know of many people that have and do make mistakes because they have only looked for the Allergy box and not gone any further. If there wasn’t one there, presumed the item to be safe. Crikey I’ve even done it with Free From goods that have Oats in, because that information was in a different area on the packet than expected.

    I luckily only have to worry about Coeliac Disease. So can’t speak from experience of looking for multiple allergens. But that said, having used the new system I honestly found that all the allergens highlighted jumped out at me from the ingredients. Very much hope it will be the same for all…

  14. Alex G

    I wonder whether those with only more unusual (non-14) allergies may find, when the highlighting does arrive fully, that their attention is (perhaps subconsciously) drawn away from the unhighlighted ingredients towards the (irrelevant to them) bold ingredients …
    Thanks for comments!

  15. Alex G

    I do worry about newly diagnosed people, because they have to take on board all sorts of other pitfalls and labelling rules and regulations (such as the exemptions, understanding Codex, confusion over eg maltodextrin, barley malt flavouring in cereals etc etc), and cope with 'may contain', and deal with differing systems for the next 15 months. It is a LOT to take on board. Thanks Julie …

  16. Alex G

    Thanks David for such a long response. I think with relation to 'speed scanning' I meant subconsciously, but it was just my supposition, and obviously the experiences of those who have to read ingredients to this degree of care are more telling. I'd not thought particularly about the impact of 'may contain' – i suppose it could work the other way – manufacturers may turn more attention towards it. Hard to tell. Just hope we don't get more manufacturers putting long strings of 'may contain' allergens to cover their backsides, which is maddening enough now for many …

  17. Emma Louise

    I had a real problem with the new allergen labelling system today. A very accurate and honest small gluten free food producer was advertising a gluten free mince pie on Facebook. They hadn't marked it dairy free like some of their other products. I visited their website to check the ingredients. They were using the new labelling system (highlighting allergens in bold). There were no dairy ingredients listed and no allergy box (as expected with the new system). I asked the producer why she hadn't advertised them as dairy free too. Her response was that she couldn't guarantee two products in the list were dairy free. Where does this leave us as consumers? Are they safe or not?

  18. Alex G

    Do you mean she couldn't guarantee two *ingredients* in the list were dairy free? Well, that's a 'may contain traces of dairy' case, I suspect, and perhaps that's what she should be declaring…

  19. Emma Louise

    Yes, sorry two ingredients in the product couldn't be guaranteed as dairy free. I wasn't sure if that statement was still in use. Clearly both the consumer (me) and the producer (in this case) are unsure of what information a label will now contain.

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