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1-2% of the UK adult population and 5-8% of children in the UK have a food allergy; this figure does not include those with food intolerances. In addition, it is estimated that 1 in 100 people have coeliac disease, a genetic and autoimmune disease triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. As an example, when people with coeliac disease consume even the smallest amount of gluten, the reaction is not the same as an allergic reaction and they will not go into anaphylactic shock, but it will result in symptoms. These symptoms usually start a few hours after eating it and symptoms can last from a few hours to several days. Ongoing ingestion of gluten results in symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, nutritional deficiencies including iron, folic acid and B12 anaemias and associated complications such as osteoporosis. There is no cure for food allergy or coeliac disease. The only way to manage food allergy and coeliac disease is to avoid food that triggers the abnormal immune response. Therefore, it is very important that food businesses provide consumers with clear and accurate information about allergenic ingredients in products to enable them to make safe food choices.

Providing safe food is a legal obligation

While precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) is not specifically mandated. Providing voluntary precautionary allergen information falls under the general principles of food safety law - Regulation EU 178/2002 as well as Article 36 of Regulation EU 1169/2011. These legal obligations pertain to all FBOs at all stages of the supply chain. 

The intention of precautionary allergen labelling

PAL serves both to communicate risk, but also manage it. Its ultimate purpose being to avoid reactions to allergens in susceptible consumers. The terminology used for PAL aims to convey to susceptible consumers the possibility that an allergen may be present in a product and therefore pose an appreciable risk to them, which the manufacturer wishes them to avoid. In other words, a food producer should be using PAL primarily to dissuade susceptible consumers from consuming their product.

Unintended allergen presence can occur in a number of ways, the most common and best known being through cross-contact during manufacture of either the product or one of its components, including agricultural raw materials. However, situations that can give rise to unintended allergen presence encompass the whole supply chain from the fields in which agricultural commodities are grown through the containers in which those commodities are transported, right up to storage at the manufacturing location. 

Precautionary allergen labelling is not an appropriate strategy to manage lack of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) during manufacturing, or lack of adherence to generally recognised Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). Maintaining PAL ensures you retain trust and enables a safe space for your customers. 

Best Practice for using PAL statements - New FSA Guidance  
Voluntary statements such as ‘produced in a kitchen which uses…’ or ‘may contain’ should only be used following a meaningful risk assessment which demonstrates a significant and real risk of cross contamination and should not be used as a substitute for good hygiene and safety practices. The FSA has recently updated it’s guidance for businesses following a consultation 

The FSA technical guidance is recommending a number of changes in relation to how food businesses should use Precautionary Allergen Label (PAL) and is advising that food businesses should: 

  • Only apply a PAL if there is an unavoidable risk of allergen cross-contamination which cannot be sufficiently controlled by segregation and cleaning. 

  • Specify which of the 14 major allergens the PAL refers to – for example, using “may contain peanuts” rather than a generic “may contain nuts” statement. 

  • Use PAL statements in combination with a ‘vegan’ label where a risk of cross-contamination with an allergen has been identified. A ‘vegan’ label communicates different information to a ‘free-from’ claim, which is food safety information aimed at different consumer groups. 

The technical guidance goes into further detail about why businesses should not use a PAL statement alongside a “free from” statement and gives updated information on best practice for the use of No Gluten Containing Ingredient (NGCI) statements for food businesses in the non-prepacked food sector.  Read the full recommendations here and here.

No Gluten Containing Ingredients (NGCI) Statements

NGCI statements have been used on menus to signal foods that are made from no gluten containing ingredients, for example: "this menu has been designed for a no gluten diet”. Legally, only the terms “gluten free” or “low gluten” can be used to describe the absence or the reduced presence of gluten. Evidence has shown NGCI statements can mislead consumers, hence, they should be avoided. Furthermore, NGCI statements should not be used when there is a risk of unintentional cross contamination with gluten containing ingredients. If a food business decides to use NGCI statements, it must be clearly communicated that foods are not suitable for people with coeliac disease. 

Vegan Statements and other voluntary marketing messages

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) recently published a report, “Vegan and Plant-based Food”, in which it warns that the lack of a legal definition for vegan food is potentially putting people with allergies at risk, as well as causing confusion for consumers and businesses.

There is currently no legal definition of whether food sold as vegan or plant-based can contain ingredients such as milk or other animal-derived products, leaving vegans and allergy sufferers in the dark about what is legally allowed in their food.

With around one in 20 (4.5%) of the UK population following a meat-free diet, CTSI has warned that it is more important than ever that consumers can be confident that if they decide to adopt a vegan diet, they can be assured that foods labelled as vegan do not contain animal-derived products. This can be a particular issue for people with allergies to animal-based products such as lactose. The recent position from the FSA should be noted in these scenarios, a vegan statement should be used in combination with a precautionary allergen statement, if there is a real risk of the presence of animal derived proteins such as milk or eggs. The safety of vegan consumers who also have a food allergy to animal derived proteins must be prioritised. 

Sampling data supplied by Hampshire and Kent Scientific Services showed several products labelled as ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based' contained milk or eggs. Milk and eggs are two ingredients that can cause severe reactions in allergy sufferers, this sensitive population group along with people who want to follow a vegan diet need this information to support them to make an informed decision regarding foods they are going to buy.     

The death of Celia Marsh in 2017 and comments made by coroner Maria Voisin in her subsequent report shone a spotlight on the devastating consequences of undeclared allergens. Maria suffered a fatal anaphylactic shock after eating a wrap from Pret a Manger that was labelled ‘vegan’ but due to cross-contamination during the manufacturing process contained milk protein that was not labelled.

"It’s so important to have further clarity around the display of precautionary allergen information from the FSA. People rely on food allergy information to manage not only their own allergies but the allergies of their children. Accurate and consistent allergen labelling is a crucial element of selling safe food. The updated FSA guidance clearly outlines the purpose and importance of precautionary allergen labelling and provides clear direction for food businesses on its use.”

Frankie Douglas, Compliance Director, Nutritics.