Next generation QR codes aim to reduce allergic reactions caused by mislabelled or unclear food packaging

Next generation QR codes aim to reduce allergic reactions caused by mislabelled or unclear food packaging

  • 15 May 2024
  • Business News
  • News

New research from GS1 UK has found that 56% of those with allergies have had a reaction from incorrect or unclear labelling, and 23% have had multiple reactions. GS1 UK members are piloting next-generation barcodes (a fusion of the linear barcode and the QR code) to allow customers to find product information on their smartphones to make allergen information more accurate and accessible.

A lack of confidence in food labelling in the UK
GS1 UK’s research found that 70% of people with food allergies felt nervous when they ate food they didn’t prepare themselves or wasn’t prepared by a close family member, and this could be down to inadequate labelling practices. For example, unclear and inaccurate labelling, ambiguous phrases such as ‘may contain nuts’, and a lack of consistency.

Most people with food allergies (60%) rely on reading product labels in store to find allergy information, but only a quarter (24%) who check always find the information they need. People with allergies are also twice as likely to distrust product labelling compared to those without allergies (12% vs 7%), with concerns over accuracy, vague wording such as “may contain”, small font size, and omission of dietary requirements.

This means many people with food allergies (40%) search online for product information, and a similar number (43%) would prefer to find information by scanning the packaging with their smartphone.

Next-generation barcodes currently being piloted
GS1 UK are piloting next generation barcodes (a fusion of linear barcodes and QR codes). These would allow customers and industry to scan the products in stores and at checkouts, gaining access to trusted data in real time, making allergy information more accurate and accessible.

People with food allergies are more likely than those without allergies to have purchasing decisions influenced by the availability of information via a QR code – two thirds (64%) already use their smartphones to scan packaging with a QR code. A third (33%) said they’d be more likely to choose a product with a QR code on pack, with many saying it would increase their confidence.

Ambiguity around precautionary allergen labels (PAL)
The new research has also shown the ambiguity of precautionary allergen labels (PAL) such as ‘may contain’ and ‘free from’: ‘free from’ labelling does not mean a food is free from all allergens; vegan labelling is not included in food law and some products contain milk and egg; and 80% of responders were unaware that there is no clear definition of ‘may contain’ amongst food manufacturers.

Labelling can depend on manufacturer’s interpretation of the guidelines leading to a lack of consistency. This can lead to risk-taking among consumers: 20% of people with food allergies say they have risked eating foods with ‘may contain’ labelling.

Professor Adam Fox, Food allergy expert and member of the Anaphylaxis UK Clinical and Scientific Panel, commented: “There are devastating consequences of undeclared allergens or unclear labelling. The lack of legislation surrounding precautionary allergen labelling, terms like ‘may contain’ is a huge concern. Next-generation QR codes can only help to provide the transparency needed to keep people with food allergies safe in what has become the potential lottery of food labelling.”

Read more from GS1 UK on the new research, and next generation QR codes