Food labelling in Europe an outline

The emphasis of European law at European Commission (EC) level is on product and consumer safety, together with ensuring the smooth operation of the internal market. The provision of consumer information, enabling consumers to make an informed choice concerning the foods they buy, is also one of the fundamental concepts of current EC law. Such horizontal provisions have generally replaced the concept of harmonisation by control of specific product standards.

Labelling requirements are detailed by Directive 79/112/EEC, as amended several times. The provisions of this Directive apply to most prepacked foods (the labelling of a number of products such as cocoa and chocolate products, certain sugars, honey and preserved milks is still controlled by vertical or product-specific standards, but revisions to these intended to simplify and streamline provisions on these product categories are currently under discussion). Foods prepacked for direct sale, i.e. prepacked on the premises for sale over a delicatessen counter or similar, and non-prepacked foods are not covered by the scope of the Directive; Member States of the European Union (EU) may establish their own rules in this area. Other key labelling directives are 89/396/EEC on lot marking and 90/496/EEC on nutritional labelling.

What are the requirements of Directive 79/112/EEC and what is their relevance to the allergen labelling issue? This Directive was developed using the principle of functional labelling, ensuring that consumers are presented with essential information as regards the nature of the product to ensure consumer safety and fair competition. Producers and manufacturers can give additional labelling information, provided this is accurate and does not mislead the consumer.

The mandatory requirements are as follows; exemptions from these are laid down in certain cases:

• Product description

• Ingredients list

• Date of minimum durability

• Usage and storage conditions, if necessary

• Declaration of origin if its omission would be misleading to the consumer

• Name and address of manufacturer or packer, or of the seller in the EU

• Quantitative ingredient declaration (fully in force from 14 February 2000).

The most important of these requirements from an allergy point of view is the need to declare the ingredients.

Generic names

Ingredients are declared in descending order of weight. Generally, the name of the ingredient given in the list of ingredients must be that of the ingredient if it was being sold itself; however, certain ingredients may be declared using class or generic names. These include:

• All types of vegetable oil, except olive oil (class/generic name: Vegetable oil)

• All caseins and whey proteins (class/generic name: Milk proteins)

• All types of starch (class/generic name: Starch)

Therefore, in certain cases, it is possible for a consumer not to be aware of the exact ingredients used in product manufacture, as the exact name of the ingredient used does not have to be given in the list of ingredients.

Compound ingredients - the 25% rule

Under this Directive, the components of a compound ingredient need not be declared in the ingredients list of a prepacked food if that compound ingredient is present in a quantity of less than 25%, other than any additives present having a direct technological effect in the final food. Under this rule, therefore, certain ingredients that have potential allergenic reactions, but are present only in small quantities, need not be specifically declared in the list of ingredients. Consumers who may be at risk are therefore not aware of their presence.

Processing aids

Additives present in a final food by means of carry-over from an ingredient used in the final product preparation that do not have a technological effect in the final food also need not be declared in the list of ingredients. In addition, processing aids need not be declared. It is possible that low levels of an additive causing hypersensitivity reaction in certain sectors of the population may be present without consumers being aware of it.

Declaration of the source of gluten

The most recent amendment to 79/112/EEC, Directive 97/4/EC, introduced a requirement that is of direct relevance to the allergy question. Put forward by the

European Parliament as an amendment to the proposed text that was in circulation, the requirement is now in place that if the generic name 'modified starch' or 'starch' is used in the ingredients list, this must be accompanied by an indication of the specific vegetable origin of the starch or modified starch, where this may contain gluten. The amending Directive is now in force. National implementation is now underway, with Member States having until 14 February 2000 to prohibit products not complying.

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