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Food Labelling

Food allergy appears when the immune system of a person fails to distinguish between dangerous and harmless foods. The body starts releasing histamine and other substances to fight the food ingested. Reactions may arise within a few seconds after eating the food or delayed by up to a couple of hours, including amongst many others itching of the lips, vomiting, skin swelling, fatigue, depression, headache or bloating.

In contrast to food allergies, food intolerances are caused by enzyme deficiency, responsible for a lack of tolerance against certain food ingredients. While the cause is different for food intolerances, it is eventually resulting in the same symptoms as for food allergies. Factors causing reactions are colorants, preservatives, flavours, artificial flavour enhancers, and synthetic antioxidants.

In the European Union, 17 million Europeans suffer from food reactions, whereof 3.5 million are under the age of 25. Over the last decade, the number of allergic children younger than five years with allergy has doubled, while visits in emergency rooms due to anaphylactic shocks have increased seven-fold. Almost 10 % of food allergic people may have acute anaphylactic reactions that could be fatal to their lives.

Food allergic reactions can among others be triggered by several factors:

  • Additives like sulphites and dyes, as for example Carmine and Saffron, used for food colouring, have been reported to cause anaphylaxis, but also
  • Flavours (artificial and natural), like artificial vanilla, amyl acetate (used as banana flavouring), ethyl butyrate (used as pineapple flavouring) or fumaric acid (to dry foods) may cause (severe) allergic reactions.

Abstention as only cure – affecting daily nutrition and quality of life

Yet, there is no cure for food allergies but the abstention from the allergen causing reactions. To avoid that people living with food allergies are also suffering from bad daily nutrition, products need to carry labels in order for consumers to identify whether products contain ingredients they are sensitive to.

The European Union Regulation on the provision of food information for consumers that entered into force in 2014, identifies a list of 14 allergens that need to be labelled (eggs, milk, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, cereals containing gluten, soybeans, celery and celeriac, mustard, lupin and sulphites). Furthermore, producers can choose to voluntarily label their products for containing also other ingredients, potentially causing allergic reactions. However, labels on food products must be emphasised and available all the time for consumers.

Cross contact - a serious threat to people living with food allergy

Cross contact happens when a food allergen gets into another food accidentally, potentially causing an allergic reaction. Cross contact may, among others, be caused during food production (when using same production machines) while transporting and storing food, and during food preparation (due to allergens on a surface or an object).

To improve health and quality of life for people with food allergies, we at EFA advocate for:

  • The full food ingredient list should be always indicated both for pre-packed and non-pre-packed foods (currently, there are exceptions based on the size of the package of the food), as other people may be allergic to other substances than to the 14 identified allergens;
  • Written information on the presence of allergens in non-pre-packed foods is the most reliable means to provide detailed information for allergic consumers, unless the person that prepared the food is available to list the ingredients to the consumers;
  • Precautionary labelling i.e. “may contain” mention should be abolished after the establishment of “safe thresholds”;
  • The European Union should adopt a comprehensive approach on food labelling, taking into account all aspects relating to legibility, including font, colour and contrast, to guarantee clear legibility and safe choices for allergic consumers;
  • The European Commission should be responsible for sharing the best food labelling examples and practices among EU Member States legislations, and drafting and implementing EU-wide guidelines.

EFA’s documents and activities on food allergy

What's new in food labelling

Latest publications Food labelling