Campaigns by authorities in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark have found allergen information provided to consumers is often inaccurate.
European regulation lists 14 allergens that are subject to labeling and information requirements.
Inspections by the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) showed that 60 percent of nearly 13,000 companies in retail, hospitality, and catering did not properly inform customers about which allergens are used in food. Information can be provided orally or in writing.
Results from checks in 2022 found that 6 in 10 firms did not inform customers completely or correctly about allergens in unpackaged foods. Sometimes labels were not kept or details of ingredients were not recorded.
Despite more inspections, there was hardly any improvement from 2021, said NVWA. The agency added it would continue monitoring the situation and try to help the sector improve.
Companies in the hospitality industry such as restaurants, hotels, and cafeterias, performed slightly better than in 2021 but the situation was worse in the retail sector. Enforcement action, in the form of written warnings or fines, was taken at sites that did not meet the requirements.
Written allergen information is often incomplete and sometimes incorrect. It is also not always visible to consumers, said NVWA. Employees can usually say which allergen is in a product, but the information is not available elsewhere in writing or electronically, so the inspector cannot check if it is correct.
In Denmark, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (Fødevarestyrelsen) verified companies’ labeling of pre-packed food, including for allergens.
Requirements state that allergens must be highlighted in a way that distinguishes them from other ingredients on the list, for example by the font, style, or background color.
Random checks at 773 companies from June to December 2022 found serious errors in the labeling of allergens at 1.4 percent of businesses, who were fined.
The campaign shows that controls should continue to focus on the labeling of pre-packaged foods, especially with allergenic ingredients, as it is a big challenge for companies and could have severe consequences for allergic consumers, said authorities.
“Results show that companies generally have a good grasp of the rules, but we expect companies to do better – not least because the rules on allergen labeling are so important for allergy sufferers,” said Henrik Dammand Nielsen, of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration.
In a national control project in Sweden in 2022, the allergen information provided for 4,344 products at 2,172 restaurants, cafes, and other large outlets was reviewed. Incorrect information was provided for 17 percent of products and 25 percent of the businesses.
Mustard and celery were the allergens that caused businesses the most trouble. Incorrect information regarding milk, eggs, and gluten was given in more than 100 cases each. The problem was not as bad for peanuts and nuts.
The project showed that how the information is available – written or provided verbally – had no bearing on how likely it was to be correct.
“The fact that an allergy sufferer so often risks getting wrong information in restaurants is very serious as it can lead to allergic reactions. Restaurants and similar businesses have an obligation to inform about allergenic ingredients in the food they serve,” said Maria Svensson, unit manager for food inspection in the city of Malmö.
Anyone who has received incorrect information about allergens at a restaurant or other outlet should report it to their local municipality, said the Swedish Food Agency (Livsmedelsverket).
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