What is the law on food labelling?

In the UK, food businesses must provide information about any of 14 major allergens when they are used as ingredients in the food and drink they provide. The way the information is communicated to the customer depends on what kind of business they are (e.g. retail or catering), and how the food is presented. The rules differ depending on whether the food they sell is:

  • Prepacked (for example, labelled food sold at retail)
  • Non-prepacked/loose food (for example food sold in restaurants and takeaways, or packed at the customer’s request, such as at in-store bakery and delicatessen counters).

Prepacked for direct sale (for example, sandwiches prepared and wrapped on-site in a cafe)

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The Law

All food for sale is covered under the EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011, commonly known as EU FIC Regulation. This EU legislation has been implemented into UK law, via the Food Information Regulations 2014. The UK is still covered by this legislation even though we left the EU in January 2020.

What are the rules governing pre-packed food?

Pre-packed food is any food that’s put into packaging before being placed on sale. Most of the food you see on the supermarket shelves or in your local grocery store comes under this category.

EU FIC Regulation states that pre-packed food must have an ingredients list and any of the 14 key allergens must be included in that list and emphasised – for example, in bold, italic or coloured type.

What are the rules governing non-prepacked foods sold by caterers?

The EU FIC Regulation covers all food sold non-prepacked in catering establishments – which include restaurants, cafes, takeaways, pubs, hotels, burger vans, schools, hospital cafeterias and anywhere else where catered food is served.

The legislation gives food businesses selling non-prepacked catered food some flexibility about the way allergen information is provided to the customer. They are not compelled to publish a full ingredient list (for example on the menu or chalk board), although they can do so if they wish.

If they choose not to, they must display prominent signage to direct the customer to where allergen information can be found, such as asking members of staff. They must have a system in place that enables them to supply accurate allergen information for every item that contains any of the 14 allergens.

The allergic customer is expected to declare what food ingredients they are allergic to, and the business must be able to present information to answer their questions truthfully.

What are the rules governing non-prepacked foods sold at the customers request?

Non-prepacked food also includes foods sold loose and then packed at the customer’ request. This can be in supermarkets, for example at the bakery or delicatessen counters. Also, this includes food products sold in bakery shops, meat sold at butchers, and pick and mix confectionery.

Broadly, the rules are the same as they are for catered food. Businesses selling non- prepacked foods are not required to display full an ingredients list, although they can if they wish. If they don’t, they must be able to supply accurate allergen information for every item that contains any of the 14 allergens. The allergic customer is expected to declare what food ingredients they are allergic to, and the business must be able to present information to answer their questions truthfully. Crucially, the business must display signage to direct the customer to where allergen information can be found, such as asking members of staff.

What are the rules governing food pre-packed for direct sale?

Foods pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) are those prepared and packed on the premises where they are sold, such as sandwiches, pies or pasties. Greggs and Subway are two examples.

The rules are currently the same as for foods sold non-prepacked loose. Businesses are not required to display full ingredients lists, but must be able to supply accurate allergen information for every item that contains any of the 14 allergens. Crucially, the business must display signage to direct the customer to where allergen information can be found, such as asking members of staff.

The rules are due to change and from 1 October 2021, foods pre-packed for direct sale will need to have a label with a full ingredients list with allergenic ingredients emphasised within it. This change was introduced as a result of a consultation by DEFRA into allergen labelling legislation following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse.

Natasha, who was 15, died after eating a baguette that had been prepacked for direct sale at Pret a Manger at Heathrow Airport prior to boarding a flight to Nice in July 2016. Natasha was allergic to sesame and did not know sesame was an ingredient of the baguette.

Exempted ingredients from allergen labelling legislation

Some ingredients derived from the 14 allergens listed above will not cause an allergic reaction because they have been highly processed. An example is fully refined soya oil or wheat glucose syrups. Such ingredients do not need to be emphasised within the ingredients list.

What are the labelling rules governing alcoholic drinks?

Some foods and drinks do not require an ingredients list, such as alcoholic drinks with more than 1.2% by volume of alcohol. However, they will need to declare the presence of any of the 14 allergens listed above. For example, a bottle of wine should have a statement such as: ‘Contains: sulphites’ if the finished product contains sulphites at more than 10mg/litre.

The presence of egg and milk when used as fining agents also need to be declared. Fining is the act of adding a product to wine to remove suspended solids.

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