According to a recent study undertaken by the University of Manchester, undeclared allergens present in packaged food are causing accidental allergic reactions. During the study foods were found to have allergens present which were not declared in the ingredients. The most common allergens found were milk, peanut and sesame, which were present in varying quantities. In some cases they were considered to pose a serious risk to consumers suffering from food allergies.

What is a food allergen?

Food allergies affect 1-3% of the population and happen when the immune system, the body's defence against infection, mistakenly treats proteins found in food as a threat.

As a result, chemicals are released by our bodies that cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Almost any food can cause an allergic reaction but there are certain foods that are responsible for most food allergies. The 14 allergens below have been identified as the most common in the UK and the rest of the EU and are therefore subject to legal control when used in food.

  • cereals containing gluten: wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut or their hybridised strains
  • peanuts (also called groundnuts)
  • nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashew nut, pecan nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia (Queensland) nuts
  • fish
  • crustaceans (includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps and prawns)
  • molluscs (includes mussels, cockles, oysters, scallops, squid and octopus)
  • sesame seeds
  • eggs
  • milk and milk products (including lactose)
  • soy beans
  • celery
  • lupin
  • mustard
  • sulphur dioxide and sulphites at levels above 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre expressed as SO2

What are the legal requirements?

Whether food is sold loose (non-prepacked) or prepacked there are requirements to inform customers when allergens are present in the food. When prepacked, this information must be made clear on the label. When non-prepacked, customers must be signposted to request information if required. If requested, the information provided must be accurate.

Prepacked foods, for example canned items on sale at a supermarket must have allergens clearly indicated in their ingredients list. It is the responsibility of the manufacturer, packer or importer to ensure this is accurate. Non-prepacked food, for example a Chinese meal from your local takeaway or an ice cream from an ice cream van must be able to, if asked by a customer, to inform them accurately what allergens are contained within those meals. They must have a sign in place for customers so they are aware they can request this information.

How is the law relating to allergenic ingredients enforced?

Local Trading Standards Departments enforce the law in relation to allergen labelling. Inspections at any stage of food production including manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers, are carried out to ensure that the product label matches the ingredients in the product.

Takeaways and restaurants are also inspected to ensure that:

  • businesses know their legal obligations;
  • ensure signposting is in place;
  • ensure businesses have the means to provide accurate information regarding allergens to customers upon request.

Test purchasing or sampling may be carried out at any premises selling food in order to check for compliance, which may also including testing the product for any undeclared allergens.

Local Authority Environmental Health Officers also inspect premises to ensure that hygiene standards are met. This includes minimising cross-contamination of allergenic ingredients. Steps to reduce cross-contamination can include using different utensils for each ingredient e.g. different spoon for peanuts than coconut, and using different butter and knives for gluten free products and non-gluten free products to make sure the breadcrumbs from the gluten don't go into the gluten free food.

Recently in the news

Mohammed Zaman, owner of the Indian Garden restaurant and takeaway in North Yorkshire was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and jailed for six years after supplying a curry containing peanuts to a customer with a peanut allergy.

The court was told he swapped almond powder in recipes for cheaper groundnut mix, containing peanuts.

Mohammed Zaman had received previous warnings regarding allergen from the Local Authority Trading Standards.

Zaman was found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence and six food safety offences.

If non-compliance with food law leads to death of an individual, the Police are able to take manslaughter charges.

General non-compliance with food law may result in an improvement notice being issued, requiring compliance to be achieved. If the improvement notice is not complied with it is an offence under the Food Safety Act 1990, the maximum penalty being an unlimited fine and/or up to two years' imprisonment.

If allergen information does not comply with the requirements it is an offence under the Food Information Regulations 2014. The penalty is an unlimited fine.