New rules went into effect Dec. 13 throughout the European Union to help people avoid 14 allergens in food by requiring labels, providing information on food allergies and intolerance, and offering voluntary best practices on cross-contamination controls for pre-packed and loose food items. The new rules impact restaurants, bakeries, delis and grocery stores, among others. Officially known as the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation, the rules were adopted in 2011 in order for the public to “receive clearer, more comprehensive and accurate information on food content, and help them make informed choices about what they eat,” according to the European Commission. All provisions included in the rules became effective this past Saturday except for those relating to the mandatory nutritional labeling of processed food, which will apply on Dec. 13, 2016. Some of the key changes to EU food-labeling rules include:

  • Improved legibility of information (minimum font size for mandatory information);
  • Clearer presentation of allergens (e.g., soy, nuts, gluten, lactose) for pre-packed foods (emphasis by font, style or background color) in the list of ingredients;
  • Mandatory allergen information for non-pre-packed food, including in restaurants and cafes;
  • Requirement of certain nutrition information for the majority of pre-packed processed foods;
  • Mandatory origin information for fresh meat from pigs, sheep, goats and poultry;
  • Same labeling requirements for online, distance-selling or buying in a shop;
  • List of engineered nanomaterials in the ingredients;
  • Specific information on the vegetable origin of refined oils and fats;
  • Strengthened rules to prevent misleading practices;
  • Indication of substitute ingredient for “imitation” foods;
  • Clear indication of “formed meat” or “formed fish,” and,
  • Clear indication of defrosted products.

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been busy since 2011 devising guidance for the businesses which must comply with the new rules. FSA has posted resources about allergen information, providing allergen information for non-pre-packed foods, labeling of gluten-free foods, technical guidance on new allergen labeling and information rules to support SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises), and allergen management and labeling for pre-packed foods. The EU is also working on a new database to make the rules easily accessible to food business operators and SMEs. The database is scheduled to be rolled out next year. Meanwhile, some owners and operators of European food establishments are reportedly confused about how to implement the new rules, and it apparently hasn’t helped that some EU members, such as Italy and France, haven’t yet adopted their own guidelines about how to do it. Some restauranteurs find the idea of listing the ingredients of all food items on their menus too difficult and believe that direct communication between diners and wait staff should be sufficient. “We didn’t wait for Europe to be able to tell customers about allergens if they ask,” Jean Terlon, chef and owner of a restaurant near Paris. “There’s no need for a directive.” However, he also noted that more restaurants these days rely on pre-packaged industrial food items and may not be aware of all the ingredients in the menus they offer. Regarding country-of-origin labeling requirements in the new rules, some EU food outlets have already complied because of action taken earlier by individual member countries.

“We were required to list much of that information after the mad cow scare of some 15 years ago,” said the owner of a Madrid butcher shop, pointing to meat and sausage labels listing where each animal had been born, fed and butchered.