Celery, mustard, sulphur dioxide and crustaceans might seem like strange bedfellows at first sight, but by 2005 European consumers can expect to see these potential food allergens, along with a handful of others, clearly identified on food products.
The Council and the European Parliament last week gave the all clear for tough new rules on food allergens, brushing aside the '25 per cent' rule and ushering in the transparent labelling of food ingredients classed as potential allergens.
Escalating incidences of food allergies - according to allergy associations 8 per cent of children and 3 per cent of adults are affected - and the desire by consumers to be better informed about foodstuffs they purchase, led the Commission to propose changes to the Labelling Directive 2000/13/EC. In particular the 25 per cent rule, introduced more than 20 years ago to avoid inordinately long lists of ingredients on labels.
Essentially, the 25 per cent rule is based on the principle that the consumer knows the composition of compound ingredients and can therefore deduce, for example, that jam added to biscuits is prepared with fruit and sugar. The amendment, cleared last week, effectively abolishes this percentage.
Under the new rules, food manufacturers will have to list all sub-ingredients of compound ingredients, which means that allergens cannot be 'hidden'. One example of this is sauces that might contain allergenic ingredients like eggs, milk or mustard.
Before, such sub-ingredients did not have to be listed if they were part of a compound ingredient that made up less than 25 per cent of the product, whereas now all such allergenic ingredients will have to be declared.
Getting to the nitty gritty of the changes, some labelling exceptions will no longer be accepted for allergens. Previously it was possible to declare ingredients only as a category - for example, vegetableoil - the new rules will require that the source be indicated for all allergenic ingredients so that for example 'peanut oil' must be specified.
Similarly, the source of a natural flavour such as a nut will have to be indicated, while it is currently labelled only as 'natural flavour'.
And the new rules do not just affect food manufacturers. Alcoholic beverages, previously exempt from ingredient labelling, are also implicated in the new amendment. The new rules will require all ingredients that are on the list of allergens to be declared - so that, forexample, sulphite present in wines will have to be indicated. Sulphites are additives used as preservatives in many foodstuffs, including wines, beer and cider.
The additionallabelling requirements will enter into force after a transitional period to allow companies to bring product labelling into line with the new provisions. If all goes smoothly, consumers can expect to see food products donning the new labels on the supermarket shelves in 2005.