Precautionary allergy labelling

If, like me, you are the parent of a child with food allergies, or suffer from such allergies yourself then reading precautionary allergy labelling (PAL) on a product becomes second nature.

I have been curious for a while about the actual meaning of PAL and after doing some research I discovered something surprising, which I wanted to share.

Please note that the information below applies to the UK.

You are probably already familiar with seeing products labelled as “may contain X” or “produced in the factory that handles X” (where X is among the 14 common allergens in the EU). This is PAL. However, their precise wording can often vary, which can cause confusion.

I recently came across this article written by Dr. Paul Turner at Imperial College London about PAL. Although this article was published in 2016, I think most of the information still applies. I highly recommend you to read this as it is very insightful. In addition, I have contacted the Food Standard Agency for further clarification on PAL. Here are the 4 key points I want to highlight.

1. PAL is voluntary for a food manufacturer

The FSA states that PAL should be justifiable only on the basis of a risk assessment applied to a responsibly managed operation.

2. The prevalence of contamination and, where present, the amount of allergen detected are similar irrespective of the presence or absence of a warning label

This combined with Point 1 gives me much cause for concern. However, reading this FSA page, it clearly states that under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, a manufacturer can be held liable to consumers for injury, loss or damage suffered as a result of supplying a defective product, whether or not they are negligent.

A defective product is defined as one where the safety of the product is not such as persons generally are entitled to expect. Criteria include any instructions or warnings given with the product and what might reasonably be expected to be done with it.

This means that if the manufacturer does not provide PAL, even though they operate under good manufacturing practices (GMP), and that they should have known that there is a significant likelihood of product contamination (e.g. the same machine make different flavoured food of which one flavour contains one of the 14 allergens), they could be liable for negligence.

3. There is no correlation between the wording and the risk of cross‑contamination

I used to think the meaning of “may contain peanuts” and “manufactured in a factory that handles peanuts” were different and maybe one is more serious than the other. However, according to Dr. Turner’s paper, these wording are not related to the risk of cross-contamination.

4. It is up to the food manufacturer how often the risk assessment for cross-contamination is carried out

Some manufacturer may carry out a risk assessment more frequently than others. However, such information is not available on the brand’s website. So we wouldn’t know how long ago a risk assessment has taken place to inform what is being included on the product’s labelling.

My proposal for best practise

The regulation of PAL is important but definitely needs improvement and standardisation. This would ensure consumers are made fully aware of what is happening in food production and to allow for a properly informed decision to be made.

I would propose that in addition to PAL, a list of all the 14 common allergens be provided on the back of food packaging to allow manufacturers to tick all boxes for which there is a definite exclusion in the manufacturing process.

In addition the manufacturers’ website could have a page to explain how their items are produced, specifying which of their products contain any of the 14 allergens. This information should be clearly dated with an indication of how often this is being reviewed.

Notwithstanding, PAL are still very important and should be taken seriously. If in any doubt, we should not hesitate to contact the manufacturer for further information.