Food labelling and allergens

Coping with food allergies can feel overwhelming, especially when it comes to understanding food labels. AFSA investigates what information is and isn’t required on food labelling, as well as food industry regulations with regards to uncommon allergens.

The food industry is monitored through a number of different regulations, including the Regulation Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs (R.146). This regulation stipulates how ingredients must be listed on packaging, the labelling of common allergens and disclosure of information in the case of uncommon allergens.

Ingredients and allergens

All ingredients must be listed in descending order of mass and named as when sold as a single foodstuff. The presence of common allergens in the product, or its packaging material, must be shown on the food label. If the food producer is unable to prevent allergen cross contamination in the manufacturing environment, they are required to place precautionary allergen labelling statements (may contain) on their products.

In the case of uncommon allergens, their presence or risk of allergen cross contamination do not need to be stipulated on the packaging. With regards to food additives, it is not required by law to list the ‘e-numbers’ in the ingredient list. In both instances, this information must be disclosed by manufacturers upon request by a consumer.

“When purchasing from a trusted manufacturer, the ingredient list should inform the individual of any possible foods which may cause a reaction, but if the consumer does not find this information, they are at liberty to contact the manufacturer and request further information”, says Candice Sharp of the Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services  (FACTS).

What are common allergens?

“Common allergen” is defined as: egg, cow’s milk, crustaceans and molluscs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts and any significant cereals, as well as ingredients derived from these foodstuffs that has retained its allergenicity in the final product. Goats milk shall, according to R.146, be labelled in the same manner as common allergens.

Then what are uncommon allergens?

“Uncommon allergen” is defined as: any food or non-food allergen not classified as a common allergen. Since only 10% of global food allergy sufferers have an “uncommon allergy”, identifying and avoiding them can be more difficult. Less common food allergies include, but not limited to, red meat, gelatine, corn, sesame seeds, and sulphites.

Alpha-Gal syndrome is a food allergy to red meat and mammal by-products, which produces mild to severe allergic reactions upon consumption. Rene Morcom of Alpha-Gal South Africa cautions against solely relying on food labels in the case of uncommon allergens. “Before you buy anything go straight to the manufacturer and get information from them”, advises Rene.

Get the facts

Consumers have the right to know what is in their foodstuffs and packing material. Take control and ensure that you are consuming allergen free foods by following these steps:

  • Read food labels carefully. Some ingredients may or may not be listed according to regulation.
  • If in doubt and in all cases of uncommon allergens, contact the manufacturer for a detailed ingredient and allergen list.
  • If it is found that a producer does not comply with relevant regulations, they are guilty of an offence and should be reported to the local Department of Health.