I want to provide you all with the current state of play In Australia for labelling of food allergies. Labelling can be complex and confusing so the information below gives a good overview of what your rights are as a consumer. Knowing how to read food labels and ask the right questions can go a long way to avoid having a reaction and getting sick. Food producers and caterers realise how important it is to provide the right information about possible allergens in their products especially as more and more people are finding out who caters for their needs well and are spreading the news!
To label or not to label
The demand for gluten and allergy free food is growing rapidly especially in Australia. Food producers and caterers who provide allergy free food products, must label their products correctly to meet Australian food standards and avoid their customers falling ill.
Caterers must make sure that they and their catering and wait staff know what gluten and allergy free really means. As a customer you have the right to know what you are eating and how your meal was prepared.
What are the rules?
Australia has some of the most stringent allergy free labelling laws in the world. The legislation for labelling of products in Australia is set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code). The Code is administered by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). The Code is enforced by State and Territory Departments and Food Agencies within Australia and New Zealand. If you want more detailed information, the code is updated regularly (www.foodstandards.gov.au/foodstandards/foodstandardscode.cfm).
In general, all ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight and this includes any added water. An ingredient does not have to be listed if it makes up less than 5% of the food. However, this does not apply to any additive or allergen as these must be listed no matter how small the amount.
According to FSANZ, most food allergies are caused by peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, sesame seeds, fish and shellfish, soy and wheat, and these must be declared on the food label however small the amount added. Gluten needs to be declared on the label so people with Coeliac Disease or gluten allergy can identify these products. Sulphite preservatives must also be declared on the label if added at 10 (or more) milligrams per kilogram of food.
A food must have a warning statement when people may be unaware of a severe health risk posed by an allergen. Some food labels say ‘may contain’ certain allergens, such as ‘may contain nuts’. This is because the manufacturer is concerned that traces of nuts might be present in the food unintentionally, if, for example, the food is prepared on the same equipment as products that contain nuts. Sometimes ingredients derived from known allergenic foods are not clearly identified in the ingredients list, for example soy might be listed as ‘textured vegetable protein’.
Where the food is for retail or catering purposes and is exempt from labelling, the required allergen information must either be displayed on, or in connection with the display of the food, or provided to the purchaser upon request.
Lots of resources
The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) have produced an Allergen Management and Labelling Guide that provides an overview of the regulatory requirements in Australia and New Zealand for the mandatory declaration of food allergens, guidance on good manufacturing practice and recommended labelling formats.
The Allergen Bureau is a voluntary membership organisation of food industry representatives providing advice on food allergen issues and in 2011 released a document titled Unexpected Allergens in Food.
Coeliac Australia provides a good summary of the Australian requirements for gluten free labelling (http://coeliac.org.au/professionals/food-manufacturer.html). They also have a great app listing more than 800 ingredients and 300 additives used in Australian and New Zealand foods, advising whether they’re safe to include in a gluten-free diet.
Better Health Victoria have a good fact sheet on food labelling generally http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Food_labels_explained
Also have a look at http://www.measureup.gov.au/internet/abhi/publishing.nsf/Content/How+to+read+food+labels-lp for a good summary.
The Melinda’s Team