Working together, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Food Standards Agency have issued a consultation on proposed changes to food allergen labelling in order to enable consumers to be provided with the information they need to make safe food choices.
The consultation focuses on food which is 'pre-packed for direct sale' (PPDS). This is where the food is packed, in anticipation of it being sold to the consumer, on the same premises from which it is sold. Some examples of PPDS foods include boxed sandwiches and salads prepared in a café, or pre-weighed and packed cheese or meats from a deli counter.
At present EU law sets the legal framework for the labelling of PPDS foods and treats these types of food products the same as non-prepacked food (e.g. such as that served in a restaurant). This means that while food allergen information has to be provided in respect of such products, the manner in which it is provided is left to each individual member state to determine. The UK has determined, as provided for in the Food Information Regulations 2014 (the 2014 Regulations), that allergen information for non-prepacked foods - which for this purpose includes PPDS products - does not need to be provided on the food packaging itself but may be given to the customer verbally by a member of staff at the premises from which it is sold.
The consultation proposes four possible policy options for meeting the stated objective of consumers being provided with sufficient and accurate information to make safe food choices. These are:
- Promoting best practice - which would likely involve the issuing of guidance to the catering sector by the Food Standards Agency, as well as a public information campaign to highlight allergen awareness.
- The inclusion of 'ask the staff' labels on all packaging for PPDS foods. The 2014 Regulations do in fact already require food business operators to use such indicators; however currently there is a choice about whether to include these on the packaging itself, or elsewhere in the premises.
- A requirement to include the name of the food and only the relevant allergens in that food on the food packaging itself - this is most likely to be achieved by amending the 2014 Regulations to remove the possibility of allergen information being given verbally in the case of PPDS foods.
- To align the position with prepacked foods more generally and impose a requirement for the PPDS food products to be labelled with a full ingredients list.
For each policy option there is a high level impact assessment for businesses - as well as broad assessments of the likely efficacy of the measures from a consumer protection perspective - which may be useful for businesses in shaping their responses to the consultation.
Interested parties are able to respond on a wide range of relevant issues, including their preferred preference from the four options, their views on a proposed two-tier approach (with different rules for smaller and larger businesses), and an opportunity to give evidence in relation to the likely cost and operational impact of changes.
The consultation will remain open until 29 March, and responses can be made either through an online form or by post.