The move has been made to maintain the supply of certain food products containing ingredients that have become increasingly difficult to source because of the conflict in Ukraine.
The majority of the UK’s sunflower oil comes from Ukraine and food businesses here are reporting that supplies of sunflower oil are likely to run out in a few weeks with some businesses already experiencing severe difficulties.
This has led to some food manufacturers urgently replacing sunflower oil with refined rapeseed oil before being able to make the change on the label. The FSA has therefore advised that food products labelled as containing sunflower oil may instead have been produced using refined rapeseed oil and consumers should look out for additional information being provided by retailers and manufacturers to stay informed.
The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, the FSA and other technical bodies have been working extensively behind the scenes with the food industry to determine whether rapidly substituting sunflower oil with unlabelled rapeseed oil would create issues for consumers with allergies.
Concerns remained earlier this week, as Food and Drink Federation (FDF) chief executive Karen Betts pressed secretary of state for food, environment and rural affairs George Eustice for a concession on the topic at the FDF conference on 22 March in London.
Recognising that sunflower oil was used in an estimated 1,500 - 2,000 product lines in a typical major grocery retailer, Eustice said he understood the issue was on hold until all health risks could be ruled out. The FSA's decision to go public with the consumer advice indicates it has received the go-ahead to endorse the substitution.
Substituting sunflower oil
"FSA and FSS have been working hard to understand the recent pressures on our food supply chain and the interim measures needed to make sure certain foods – like crisps, breaded fish, frozen vegetables and chips – remain on sale here," said Emily Miles, FSA chief executive. "We have looked at the immediate food safety risk of substituting sunflower oil with refined rapeseed oil - particularly to people with a food allergy - and it is very low. We know allergic reactions to rapeseed oil are very rare and - if they do occur - are mild.
"Retaining consumer trust remains an absolute priority for both organisations and we are urgently working with the food industry and other partners to ensure labels on food where sunflower oil has been replaced by refined rapeseed oil are made accurate as soon as possible."
The FSA and FSS are working across government and the food industry to understand the challenges and ensure food supply is maintained in a way that is safe and in the interests of consumers.
Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, deputy director of food at the British Retail Consortium, said: "The war in Ukraine has disrupted supplies of sunflower oil to the UK. Where sunflower oil exists as an ingredient in products, retailers will be substituting it with other safe oils, such as rapeseed oil. Retailers are looking to change product labels as soon as possible; where sunflower oil is a key ingredient, such as crisps, retailers will imprint information on substitute oil onto existing labels. Retailers’ customer services will be answering questions on all their own brand products."
The FSA and FSS have published the rapid risk assessment into the substitution of sunflower oil with refined rapeseed oil as part of a commitment to making public the science and evidence underpinning our advice and guidance.