Delegates at the FSA Food hypersensitivity symposium 2021 heard the problem with PAL is that there is no clear guidance or legal requirement for manufacturers over when to use it and when not to use it.
Kicking off the symposium, FSA chief executive Emily Miles said use of PAL had increased in the past decade from around a third of businesses sampled in 2012 using it to over half in 2020. "This type of labelling is meant to indicate where there is a risk of contamination from the unintentional presence of an allergen and it's communicated using a number or different phrases, the most common being 'may contain ...'
'Used as disclaimer'
"While it is relatively straightforward to determine the ingredients and the allergens in a product, it is much more difficult to say this type of unintentional contamination may have occurred. A recurring criticism of PAL is that it's used as a disclaimer to protect businesses rather than inform the consumer, who can then often feel excluded from enjoying particular foods."
In addition, its over-use as a default option to cover even very minimal risks seemed to lead consumers to lose trust in it and disregard it, said Mortimer. "You're forcing consumers to take the risk and having too much information that's not necessarily true is just as dangerous as having none at all. There's also then a business risk from loss of sales.
"At the other end of that scale is a minimal use of PAL then - it's only if a very high level and a high level of people are going to be affected. Again you're putting the consumer at risk, but they are not aware of that risk. That's not a great place to be either and if a business does get it wrong there's a loss of reputation, possibly even prosecution. That could be at an individual level. That could be a jail sentence."
Pursuing a middle way was also less than ideal, he said. "There's a 'best guess' that's applied. Again, there's a consumer risk as this leads to labelling distrust - how can you have two products, one with, one without. The business is put at risk because they don't have the expertise to make that decision. It really is a guess. Or they are having to take what their supplier is telling them."
"Regulation of PAL is desperately needed," said Mortimer of Apetito, which manufactures soups, sides, meals and desserts for a range of customers, including those with specific dietary requirements and digestion problems. "We need to have, I would suggest, mandatory PAL where [allergen] thresholds are exceeded and that should apply to all stages of the food chain, not just consumer focused."
Symposium presenters agreed that PAL would work best where it was based on thorough allergen risk assessments, although they recognised this was tough to implement.
Helen Arrowsmith, principal food law adviser in Campden BRI's regulatory affairs department, said: "Remember any food information provided to consumers must be based on a meaningful, suitable, sufficient risk assessment."
Miles said: "The FSA is working to better understand how food businesses carry out risk assessments and to learn more about consumer perceptions of these statements. This will feed into a formal stakeholder consultation planned for the end of 2021 or early 2022."
She said the FSA was also working with Codex Alimentarius, the global food standards body. "Codex is working on harmonising allergen threshold levels, so there can be new international standards that guide the way PAL is used."
The FSA held a workshop to gather views from symposium delegates on its review of PAL across this year.
FSA research has found that food businesses’ handling of allergens appears to have significantly improved since new regulations came into force in 2014. The regulations make it mandatory to provide information to consumers about the presence of 14 allergenic ingredients in food.
The research found
- Better provision of allergen information: the vast majority of the 2,303 food business operators surveyed said that they provided written or verbal information about each of the 14 allergens they sold.
- Improved allergen labelling policies: 95% of food businesses said they had a written (83%) or informal policy (12%) on allergen labelling – up from 60% in 2012. This includes a large majority of market traders. Of 55 market traders surveyed, 93% had written (78%) or informal (15%) policies.
- Better checking of allergenic ingredients: almost all (99.9%) of food businesses had processes in place to check if a product contains allergenic ingredients – up from 92% in 2012. Nearly nine in ten food businesses (86%) check or audit the ingredients they obtain from suppliers and wholesalers (71% in 2012).
- More training for staff: half of food businesses had undertaken formal training on food allergens (49%), up from a third (34%) reporting this in 2012. Almost all food business operators provided staff with allergen information (99%), most commonly through verbal training (90%).
In October 2021 further legislation will be coming into force requiring food businesses to provide allergen labelling on prepacked for direct sale (PPDS) food. That is food that has been packed before being offered for sale on the same premises from which it is being sold, such as a sandwich or salad.
This is as a result of a UK-wide review following the death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse from an allergic reaction caused by a PPDS baguette which did not require allergen labelling.
The FSA report suggests 64% of food businesses selling PPDS food are aware of the labelling changes that are due to come into force and 62% already provide full ingredients labelling on the PPDS food they sell.
Over the next few months, the FSA said it would be working closely with food businesses to make sure they were all ready for the changes. More information can be found on the Introduction to allergen labelling changes page.
The food industry’s provision of allergen information to consumers research was carried out by IFF Research on behalf of the FSA and Food Standards Scotland.