The number of food recalls recorded by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) were up 78% in 2015 compared with the previous year. These were largely a result of unlisted allergens and ingredients claimed Dr Lisa Ackerley, a special adviser to risk and compliance specialist Acoura.
“Allergen labelling is a complete muddle and needs addressing urgently,” said Ackerley. “With prison sentences and huge fines potentially being meted out by the courts when misplaced allergens cause customer harm, increasingly there is concern that food suppliers and manufacturers are using precautionary labelling as a catch-all to protect themselves in case of accidental contamination of their products from allergens.”
Unreliable and inconsistent
For manufacturers and retailers, deciding when and how to use what is termed “precautionary labelling” should be based on a risk assessment, and not used without careful consideration, warned Ackerley. The problem at the moment is that the wording used has often been found to be unreliable and inconsistent, according to a white paper issued by The Institute for Food Safety Integrity and Protection (TiFSiP).
Ackerley pointed to recent research published in the World Allergy Organisation Journal, which identified more than 40 different types of precautionary allergen statements being used. This is a long way from the FSA’s guidance of just two: ‘may contain xxx’ or ‘not suitable for someone with x allergy’ and totally baffled consumers, she said.
She referred to allergen testing carried out by the FSA over a two-year period on products carrying precautionary labelling alerts, which found that in some categories no allergens were found to be present at any stage.
Impact on sales
This must impact on sales and was seen to limit allergic consumers, said Ackerley. Equally, it also highlighted a lack of care in manufacturing, control of sourcing and traceability, and in the management of risk, she added.
“It is becoming increasingly important for everyone in the food chain to tidy up this area of confusion, and currently TiFSiP and the FSA are working with a group of key stakeholders to agree the best route forward,” she said.
“In the meantime, it is important that retailers and manufacturers don’t go freestyle, as this can only result in ever increasing recall statistics.”