The question arises where a product made for vegans is made on a line on which non-vegan foods are also produced – products that contain ingredients such as milk, egg or fish.
The problem here is that adding an allergy warning – ‘may contain’ milk, egg or fish – could deter many vegans from buying such products. But if there is no warning, then people with allergies could be placed at risk. There is no point in arguing that people with very severe food allergies will be well-informed enough about cross-contamination issues to be suspicious of vegan products. Not all people with allergies have that degree of understanding.
However difficult the problem is for producers of vegan foods, it is our view that ‘may contain’ statements must always be present whenever there is a genuine risk of allergen cross-contact. This may annoy both vegans and people with food allergies. The latter will probably conclude that the companies concerned are just ‘covering their backs’.
On its website, the Vegan Society makes it clear it is not against foods labelled as vegan also carrying a ‘may contain’ warning about animal allergens. To encourage manufacturers to give a serious commitment to avoiding cross-contamination with animal ingredients, the Vegan Trademark licence agreement asks companies to confirm that they strive to minimise cross-contamination from animal substances used in non-vegan products as far as is reasonably practicable.
As everyone in the industry knows, precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) is not a legal requirement but is necessary where any product poses a real risk. It is our view that a thorough risk assessment should be undertaken before any decision about PAL is made. The problem here, of course, is that food industry regulators have not yet provided clarity on thresholds (that is, the amount of allergen below which the risk of an allergic reaction is negligible). Although scientists have reached clear conclusions on the thresholds for certain individual foods, the industry has not yet received guidance on action levels they need to use to keep cross-contact below those levels and avoid the need for PAL.
The issue is a matter for the regulatory authorities to attend to. The thresholds proposed need to be reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the FSA in the UK before they can be adopted into official guidance. Stakeholders are actively working to ensure that the European Commission gives this matter a high priority.
For now, we advise that companies producing food for vegans should bite the bullet and realise that PAL is necessary where food products pose a genuine risk.
FSA guidance on allergen management and consumer information: www.reading.ac.uk/foodlaw/label/allergens-maycontain-2006.pdf
Food and Drink Europe guidance on food allergen management: https://www.fooddrinkeurope.eu/uploads/publications_documents/Guidance_on_Food_Allergen_Management.pdf
CIEH/TiFSiP white paper on improving the use of ‘may contain’ allergen statements: https://www.cieh.org/media/1234/lmproving-the-use-of-may-contain-allergen-statements.pdf
Vegan Society statements on allergens: https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/allergen-labelling-0