Food labelling: recent key changes and initiatives in a bid to place the UK at the forefront of a fast changing area

The past few months have seen significant changes in the regulation of food labelling. Further change seems imminent also given the UK Government’s apparent continued appetite to update legislation relating to allergenic ingredients.

‘Natasha’s Law’ on PPDS

Prepacked for direct sale food (PPDS) is any food which is packaged in the same location as it is offered or sold to consumers at and is in its packaging before being ordered or selected.

This can cover for instance the food sold in some fast food and deli shops where the food (like a sandwich or salad) is packed on site before being chosen or ordered by the consumers.

As of 1 October 2021, labelling requirements for PPDS changed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, following a campaign by the family of a teenager who died after suffering from an allergic reaction from a sandwich. The objective behind the legislative change was to increase the level of information on allergens and strengthen protection for consumers, bearing in mind the severity of some allergies which can be potentially life threatening. Prior to October 2021, allergen information for PPDS food was arguably less stringent and could be provided by any means – including orally – to consumers.

With the new rules, businesses producing PPDS food are required to label it as follows:

  • With the name of the food.
  • With a complete list of the ingredients.
  • Those allergenic ingredients must be emphasised (usually by appearing in bold letters) in the list, bearing in mind there are now 14 allergens which by law must be declared.

The idea is that the allergen information is available to consumers before purchasing the products and when receiving it, so that their awareness is raised in case they suffer from allergies. It is also to ensure that they can have confidence in the products they buy.

Businesses were given two years to prepare for the changes as the law was effectively set before parliament in September 2019. During that transition period, businesses affected by the changes had to familiarise themselves with the new requirements, work internally – and with their supply chain – to collect the information and agree future processes to capture all the relevant data.

The UK Government hopes these new requirements will facilitate – and potentially protect – the life of those two million people in the UK who live with a diagnosed food allergy.

Consultation on precautionary information and labelling

On 6 December 2021, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a consultation on precautionary allergen labelling and information. This covers in particular the wording “may contain” which can be found on the label of a lot of food in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The consultation is opened until 14 March 2022 and is primarily directed to food businesses, consumers, etc.

The wording “may contain” is one of the most commonly used ways to tell consumers about potential unintentional allergen cross-contamination. Another phrase that is also often used is “not suitable for people with an allergy to x”. It could be for instance that a plain chocolate bar is manufactured in a plant which uses nuts and therefore the label may contains the following sentence: “may contain traces of nuts”.

This follows studies by the FSA which found that consumers who are food-hypersensitive “appreciate precautionary allergen information or labelling when it clearly tells them about an unavoidable risk of allergen cross-contamination” according to the FSA. The agency also points out the need for additional clarity and consistency both for businesses and consumers. For consumers, the FSA has indicated that the information should be communicated in an “understandable and meaningful way” and for businesses processes should be “proportionate and standardised”.

There are four main areas about which feedback from stakeholders is requested:

  • Provision of information to consumers (to understand in particular their preferences for the wording and its format).
  • Advice and training for food businesses.
  • Ensuring compliance.
  • Standards for risk analysis of allergen cross-contamination.

The consultation is unique in its granularity. For example, it contains many pictures of food and potential labels with particular questions including on the text font size for instance. This one area in which imaging is key so it is helpful to see that the FSA decided to make the consultation as practical as possible.

Currently, businesses use precautionary allergen labelling voluntarily and the only requirement is that it must not be misleading, ambiguous or confusing. But there is no specific legislative framework per se and the consultation suggests that there are some changes to come in the future.

It is likely to take a few months for the FSA to review contributions to the consultation but the outcome will most likely be a proposal for a more stringent set of requirements. A more systemised and explicit wording may be imposed and the need for uniformity may dictate that one set of rules applies across the board in the future. The framework may also move away from the current voluntary basis and make it more prescriptive for food businesses.

As can be seen from the above measures and initiatives, it seems that the UK’s ambition is to take leadership in this area and come up with regulations which are more suitable for today’s environment and consumers. It will be interesting to see if other countries will follow suit.

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