Allergen information needs more work, says GS1 UK

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

A total of 36% of consumers surveyed said they checked food labelling for allergens or ingredients exacerbating intolerances
A total of 36% of consumers surveyed said they checked food labelling for allergens or ingredients exacerbating intolerances

Related tags Ingredients & nutrition Regulation Food safety Packaging & labelling

Food allergy-stricken Brits need more transparent information about allergens in foods, with one in six unable to identify any in common food groups and 62% too embarrassed to ask about ingredients when eating out.

That's according to fresh research from GS1 UK, collated just over two months before Natasha's Law comes into force, overhauling allergen labelling requirements for food pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) from out-of-home outlets.

According to the results of a consumer survey commissioned by the not-for-profit global food standards body, one in five respondents believed they had a food allergy. However, ​one in six could not identify any allergens in common food groups.

Only 43% correctly identified tree nuts as an allergen in pesto, whilst just 48% knew tofu was made from soybeans (also an allergen) and nearly a third did not know milk was the allergen in yoghurt.

Would rather 'take the risk'

Social awkwardness meant two thirds of those claiming they suffered from an allergy did not feel comfortable asking about allergens in dishes when eating out and would rather ‘take the risk’ instead.

Eight in ten agreed it was important that new food legislation was introduced to protect those with severe food allergies out of home.

The research pinpointed a challenge concerning allergen information provided online. Consumers responding to the survey said they were more than twice as likely to understand everything that was inside a product when shopping in store, compared to using websites.

Currently, only 42% said they trusted large brands to accurately label their products with allergen information, although an even smaller proportion said they would trust smaller brands.

Feed us the Facts

GS1 UK is leading the Feed us the Facts​ campaign for extra transparency from the entire food industry to protect people and businesses. The initiative is backed by the British Dietetics Association’s Specialist Allergy Group; Britain’s Anaphylaxis Campaign; and consultant paediatric allergist professor Adam Fox.

Natasha’s Law comes into effect on 1 October. The new legislation will require all food businesses to provide full ingredient lists and allergen information on PPDS foods in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Yet, according to the results of the GS1 UK survey, 61% of adults were unaware of its existence. 

GS1 UK agreed that Natasha’s law was needed, but said it was only the start of a journey. If the entire food industry collaborated over all areas of allergen labelling for food sold through all channels, that could help empower consumers and save lives via greater transparency, the organisation argued.

“Natasha’s Law is much-needed and will undoubtedly increase transparency in the food industry and protect consumers,"​ said GS1 UK chef executive officer Anne Godfrey. "Yet, our research shows that transparency should not be limited to pre-packaged items. Existing technology has the potential to drive transparency across the entire industry.” 

Code to scan products

One in four survey respondents felt a code to scan food products would make allergens clearer when shopping – with 36% checking labels for allergens or food intolerances.

“2D barcodes – like a QR code or DataMatrix – can hold significant vital information which, in the future, will empower a more responsible, protected and informed consumer,"​ said Godfrey. "Quick smartphone scans will be able to show a product’s allergens, environmental impact, extended producer responsibility and much more.

“To achieve this, the standards that sit behind the labelling of products must be used universally to enable a common language which will allow consumers to identify, capture and share data about food products.

'Click of a button'

“This would allow retailers to recall a food item more effectively by having the ability to instantly inform everyone across the supply chain with a click of a button, including the consumer who purchased the item – rather than using today's slow methods of communication."

Lynne Regent, chief executive officer of the UK’s Anaphylaxis Campaign, also supported GS1 UK's call for greater transparency: “Our ultimate aim is to create a safe environment for all people with allergies. Whilst good progress has been made in the food industry to improve safety for allergic consumers over the last few years, this new consumer research highlights that there is still a great deal of work to do.” 

Mary Feeney, group chair of the British Dietetics Association’s Food Allergy Specialist Group, said: “Many people may be unaware that allergen information can be provided in different ways, for example, some types of packaged foods do not need to include this on a product label; in a restaurant, allergen information may not be listed on the menu but could be provided in a separate folder.

"Finding the information needed to choose safe foods can be difficult for people with food allergies, especially when eating out or on the go.”

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