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Allergy labelling - a good starter, but not quite Michelin quality

Tina Patel, solicitor in the product safety and consumer law team, discusses the importance of clear and consistent food allergy labelling.

Food allergies
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Tina joined Leigh Day in 2011 and works in the product safety & consumer law department. She is an experienced litigator who specialises in defective product, cosmetic injury and food safety claims.  She has extensive experience in dealing with group actions. 
On 13 December 2014, the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC) came into force and changed the way allergen information appears on labels. As a result of this, at present, any of the 14 allergens that are on the regulatory list are to be emphasised on the label, if they are used as ingredients in a pre-packaged food. 

Information about allergenic ingredients is to be located in a single place, typically the ingredients list on prepacked food. This also means that the voluntary use of the previous types of allergy boxes, such as ‘Contains Nuts’, that provide a short cut to allergen ingredients information also given in the ingredients list, is no longer allowed.

However, the EU FIC regulations do not require the information to be presented in a uniform way, meaning the business producing the food can choose how the information is presented such as a bold font or underlining the allergen, a decision that may be influenced by advertising and packaging trends rather than ease of reference for concerned consumers.

Why is this important?

It is important that we can trust the products that we buy and a key part of this is being able to understand what ingredients have been used or what allergens may be present. Most people who take part in shopping for food will know that different brands like to take different approaches to show what is typically the same information but it is important that stylish packaging or brand gimmicks does not get in the way of presenting this important information.

A standardised system for allergy information needs to be bought into force to adequately protect consumers. The consequences for anyone suffering with severe allergies can be severe and in some instances fatal.  Therefore whilst the current legislation is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to ensure maximum protection of consumers by taking steps to simplify the current regulations, remove any ambiguity and making uniform the way in which allergen information is presented to consumers. 

What will happen after Brexit?

This current regulation originates from the EU and provides a level of consistency across the Union. Leaving the EU will change patterns of food production, trade and consumption, emphasising the need for a better regulatory system in the UK.  The Food Standards Agency here in the UK would no doubt welcome such changes.

What about businesses that do not follow the regulations?

Those retailers who fail to comply with the regulations should be subject to criminal proceedings. We already have The National Food Crime Unit which was formed following the inquiry by Professor Chris Elliott into horse meat in the food chain in 2013 after it was revealed that horse meat had found its way into products sold as beef and lamb. 

He warned that government cuts had dismantled much of the local government apparatus, such as trading standards departments, and recommended a dedicated unit was created. Powers of the National Food Crime Unit should be extended to allow them to bring criminal proceedings against those who fail to adhere to food labelling laws and this should become its primary focus to encourage those in the food industry to comply with regulations and protect the public from harm.

If you have suffered from an allergic reaction and would like to speak to a lawyer for a free consultation, please call 0207 650 1144.

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