October 2012: Food companies will no longer be able to use allergen boxes (i.e. “contains” boxes), even on a voluntary basis, because of the provisions of the new Food Information Regulation, according to DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
DEFRA says that information printed on food packaging about the presence of allergens must be restricted to the list of ingredients. This interpretation of Article 9 of the FIR has been provided to the European Commission by its legal advisors, says DEFRA. The lawyers have stated that that any additional allergen information, even on a voluntary basis, has to be specially allowed under the Regulation. The problem is not the allergen box itself, says DEFRA, but the repetition of ingredients information.
The restriction does not apply to precautionary (“may contain”) warnings, which will still be permitted. Nor will it apply to “contains” messages on products such as wine where there is no ingredients list so allergens are listed in a contains statement.
The FIR confirms previous legislation stating that whenever any of the major 14 allergenic ingredients appear in prepacked food, they must be declared in the list of ingredients. A new requirement is that these ingredients must be “emphasised through a typeset that clearly distinguishes it from the rest of the list of ingredients, for example by means of the font, style or background colour.”
Many retailers and manufactures have become accustomed to using “contains” boxes to provide additional information for people with food allergies. It is likely that many of these companies are already planning to include them as part of their overall strategy for allergen information.
A 2011 survey funded by the Food Standards Agency showed that people with food allergies participating in the study used allergen advice boxes in preference to the ingredients list. They would then sometimes, but not always, check the ingredients list. Most did not understand the voluntary nature of allergen advice boxes and some assumed that the absence of a box indicated the safety of the product. This becomes dangerous when mistakes are made. There have been numerous examples of food companies recalling products that quite correctly printed allergens in the list of ingredients but omitted them from the “contains box”.
A similar problem could occur with the new requirements relating to highlighted of allergens. Unfortunately people may be encouraged to skim-read. Someone who used to focus carefully on their shopping may now let their concentration slip. Mistakes may happen, both by consumers – and also by food companies.
The Anaphylaxis Campaign has always had strong reservations about “contains boxes”. Although many of our members regard additional information on food packaging as extremely helpful, we always advise people not to rely on the allergy box alone, but to use the ingredients list as their key point of reference. We advise people to look closely at every item in the ingredient list even if they have bought the product before. This is all part and parcel of developing a lifestyle of scrupulous attention to detail that is required when someone has a life-threatening food allergy.