Professor says allergen consultation could 'fill dangerous gap in law'

Owen Warnock. Photo provided by University of East Anglia
26/01/2019 - 06:00
In light of the announcement of plans to strengthen current food labelling laws, Emeritus Professor Owen Warnock of the University of East Anglia says they are “a welcome moves to fill a dangerous gap in the law”, but warns that only two of the four options put forward - requiring the label on the pack itself to indicate the allergen content - would make a real difference.

Prof Warnock said: “The Government announcement today that it is considering requiring better labelling of allergens in sandwiches and other foods prepacked at the shop is a welcome move to fill a dangerous gap in the law.

“Much of the danger stems from the fact that most food products must by law already be clearly labelled to show if they contain any allergenic ingredients - consumers are used to seeing these ingredients highlighted on the wrappers and can all too easily assume that this applies to all prepacked food. 

“The very law that is intended to protect consumers with food allergies has created the risk - since members of the public may assume for example that a prepacked sandwich sitting in a refrigerator in a shop must be labelled to show any allergens - but it doesn't have to be if it was made in the shop.

“How has this come about? EU law has required allergens to be indicated on most wrappers for some years - and since 2014 the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation has required that they should be highlighted.  But, FIC allows each country to have laxer rules for foods which are either not prepacked or are prepacked in the shop where they are to be sold. EU law says that the retailer must still provide allergen information but leaves each EU state free to prescribe how that should be done.

“In the UK the minimum requirement is that there must be a sign or ticket near the food indicating that allergy details may be obtained from a member of staff. It's easy to miss such signs, and even if a consumer asks there remains a real practical risk that the member of staff - who may be a zero hours worker with little experience - will give incorrect information.

“The Government has put forward four options, ranging from merely urging businesses to do better through to full ingredient and allergen labelling on every packet. The ‘Please do better’ option is pathetic and will make no real and sustained difference.

“The next option would require the packet to have a sticker on it telling the consumer to ask the staff about the allergens. This too in my view is too weak since it still relies on getting the right oral information from a member of staff in a busy shop.

“I hope the Government will adopt one of the two other options - both of which will require the label on the pack itself to indicate the allergen content. The packs already always in practice say what the flavour of the sandwich is and it really isn't too much to ask for the label also to list any allergens.

“This is an interesting example of a 'good' EU law: it introduces a basic protection and gives the UK the ability to decide whether to apply that protection in cases where it might be argued the full requirements could put too much of a burden on small businesses.”

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