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05 July 2016
Food Allergy
- Food Safety

EFA brought to a European Commission workshop on precautionary labelling the patients perspective to abolish “may contain” mentions. With 17 million Europeans affected by food allergies, allergen information is crucial to help patients to be protected from eating foods containing the allergens they are allergic to.

The latest food allergen information law, applicable since December 2014, does not regulate precautionary allergen labelling like the mentions “may contain”. This regulation leaves Member States freedom to provide voluntary information on the unintended presence of allergens in the food if this is not misleading, ambiguous or confusing and it is based on scientific evidence. Although the European Commission will adopt new measures to harmonise the way this voluntary information is provided, no deadline has been set.

The organisation of a workshop on precautionary allergen labelling is very good news for food allergy patients in Europe. The event was organised by the European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE) and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Geel, Belgium, on the 16th and 17th of June.  It gathered together delegates from Member States’ competent authorities, as well as other relevant stakeholders, like patients and food business operators.

EFA was asked to present the patients perspective on “may contain” labelling. Represented by EFA Senior EU Policy Adviser and Deputy Director Roberta Savli, we explained that a recent study in 10 European countries has found “may contain” labels for nuts in 80% of chocolate products. For EFA, the overuse of these labels leaves allergic consumers with restricted choices, resulting in either frustration and risk-taking behaviours, when ‘rebelling’ against the precautionary labelling, or in loss of quality of life and unnecessary restricted diets, when adhering to these labels.

Studies show that 8% of all allergic reactions might have been attributed to having ignored a precautionary label. More in general, “may contain” contributes to an overall uncertainty for allergic patients, as they do not know how to assess the real safety of the food, leading to fear and social isolation (such as avoiding participating in family meetings, business dinners or parties).

EFA believes that in the long-term this type of labels should be abolished. Our position has been endorsed by EFA Food Allergy Working Group members that come from patient organisations all over Europe. For EFA, risk-assessment should be quantitative and precautionary allergen labels should be based on agreed reference doses derived from scientific data on medical thresholds. In the short-term, precautionary labels must reflect an actual health risk, they could be used only after the implementation of best-practices to avoid cross-contamination and the wording should be easy to understand, uniform and agreed on a limited number of statements with a consented meaning.

The workshop was very positive as participants reached an initial agreement on crucial points, such as the importance of thresholds, the necessity of health-based risk-assessment, the call for EU guidelines and the need to propose a system that could be easily applicable also by small and middle sized enterprises.

Please access Roberta's full presentation on "may contain" and allergen labelling in our food labelling section.