Can PALs be a consumer’s best friend?

A new consultation aims to provide much-needed clarity over businesses’ use of ‘may contain’ allergen advice. Nick Hughes reports.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is currently consulting on the use of precautionary allergen labels (PALs), which often appear as “may contain” (nuts, milk etc) warnings on food packaging or at the point of sale. Restaurants and other caterers preparing food from scratch often choose to provide the information verbally or on signs or menus.

Why is the FSA consulting now? Because consumers are desperate for clarity on the use of PALs. Although FSA research has found that food-hypersensitive consumers – people who live with food allergies, intolerances, or coeliac disease – appreciate precautionary allergen information or labelling when it clearly tells them about an unavoidable risk of allergen cross-contamination, all too often they are confused by the range of precautionary labelling statements on prepacked foods and in foodservice settings where the wording can differ between products and it may not be clear precisely what the risk is. “Consumers have told us that inconsistency in how precautionary allergen labelling and information is given can cause a lack of trust in the labels and stop them being able to enjoy certain foods,” said FSA director of policy, Rebecca Sudworth.

How widespread is their use? Very, and it’s growing. In a sample of food businesses analysed for an FSA study, the proportion applying precautionary allergen labels or information increased from 29% in 2012 to 55% in 2020. Back in 2019, a small Footprint survey of half a dozen leading food-to-go brands in London found precautionary allergen statements on display in every outlet within a 500 yard stretch between High Holborn and Aldwych. Explaining the restaurant’s use of PALs, Leon’s head of marketing at the time, Rebecca Di Mambro, said it was impossible to guarantee dishes would be allergen-free when ingredients are present in the same kitchen, despite strict kitchen processes that segregate ingredients. There is concern among consumers, however, that PALs are being used by some businesses as blanket disclaimers rather than tools to communicate genuine risk.

So when should they be used? PALs are intended to be used where there is a risk of unintentional allergen cross-contamination that can’t be sufficiently controlled. It’s not a legal requirement to display a PAL; however if one is not applied and a consumer has an adverse reaction to an allergen present due to cross-contamination, there could be a breach of general food law which states that food must be safe to eat. FSA guidance also states that PALs that don’t specify the risk from individual allergens, such as generic ‘may contain allergens’ statements, may be misleading and PALs should not be used in conjunction with a ‘free from’ claim for the same allergen.

What changes are being proposed then? The FSA wants to ensure PALs are communicated more clearly and consistently. One option under consideration is to develop new standards for PALs on prepacked foods including guidance on wording, font, style, and location. It also plans to explore how this information could be made available to consumers, for example, whether it could be placed on a business’s website, published in a booklet, or accessed via a QR code. Additionally, the agency is looking at whether new guidance around the inclusion of phrases such as ‘cross-contamination’ or ‘cross-contact’ on PALs would be more effective in communicating the risk to consumers. It also wants views on whether additional information should be provided on why precautionary allergen labelling has been used on a product in the first place.

Is there not a risk of information overload? On the contrary, the FSA says its research shows that consumers, particularly those with severe or multiple allergies, want more information about why a PAL has been applied. This might include information on how allergen cross-contamination might happen – for instance milk chocolate can contaminate dark chocolate when the lines are changed in the chocolate factory – and what controls the business has put in place to minimise the risk.

What about businesses that don’t serve packaged food? Consumers report having mixed experiences when eating out, according to the FSA. In part this is due to a lack of standardisation in how precautionary allergen information is currently provided to them – it can for instance be provided on a menu, verbally by staff, or on a sign on the premises. But there is also a lack of agreement on best practice and sometimes the risk of cross-contamination may not be communicated at all. Some restaurants proactively ask customers if they have any allergies and, for those that do, prepare their meals at separate workstations in the kitchen. Others leave it to the customer to inform them of any allergen requirements. One option under consideration is for the FSA to develop standard checklists so that foodservice operators can communicate the steps they have taken to manage allergen-cross contamination on the premises. It suggests this information could be presented on menus, chalkboards, signs or delivered verbally by staff – in essence an extension of the information many businesses already provide albeit in more detailed form (and therefore more resource-intensive to produce and keep updated).

Is this all going to end up with new laws? The legislative route hasn’t been ruled out (the consultation will consider whether amendments to current labelling legislation are needed to provide clarity on the application of PALs). That would be unpopular with many businesses that are already having to implement new allergen rules for foods pre-packed for direct sale. What seems more likely is that the FSA will develop new best practice standards for PALs to address current inconsistency in how they are used. These standards could also include efforts to harmonise information on the risk of cross-contamination within supply chains, while a new accreditation scheme for the analysis of allergen risk is also under consideration.

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