Changes to allergen labelling in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code will likely come at a cost to the food industry but are planned to reduce the impact of food allergens on society.
Initially proposed in 2018, The Plain English Allergen Labelling (PEAL) seeks to make allergen labelling more transparent and consistent on Australian food packaging.
As it currently stands, the Code requires the 11 known foods and ingredients that can cause severe allergic reactions to be declared on labels when they are present in food.
But the reason for these proposed changes is because there are currently no requirements on how these declarations must be made, leading to potentially life-threatening confusion and uncertainty in consumers. There is also evidence that the lack of explicit requirements on how to declare allergens has created compliance uncertainty for the food industry and regulators in enforcing the Code.
The amendments will come into effect mid-February if no review is sought from the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation this month after being approved by the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) board in December.
Changes to the Code
After initially discussing two options — maintaining the status quo by not changing the Code or making businesses declare allergens using mandatory specified terms in bold font — FSANZ landed on a more thorough and expensive third proposal.
Option three declares businesses must state allergens using mandatory specified terms in bold font, with additional requirements to display them in the statement of ingredients as well as in a separate allergen summary statement.
The Code amendments will require mandatory specified terms of the allergen source when declaring allergens, and for businesses to separate the declaration of molluscs, individual tree nuts (such as Brazil nuts, cashews and pecans among others) and wheat, barley, rye or oats and gluten if present.
The allergen label will also follow specified guidelines regarding the format, wording and location of the declaration.
When the variations to the Code come into effect, there will be a three-year transition period followed by a two-year stock-in-trade period to implement PEAL.
FSANZ said the transition period would allow any relevant food to be sold as long as the food complies with either the existing allergen declaration requirements in the Code or the amendments arising from this proposal.
Cost to industry compared to society
Out of the estimated 30,000 retail food products or ‘stock keeping units’ (SKUs) in the Australian market (including fresh produce), more than half are expected to contain allergens and will be affected by the change.
The amendments are likely to cost the industry between $41 million and $105 million in Australia, roughly between $2733 and $7000 per SKU. This does not include the cost of managing the transition and implementation, and organising different overseas allergen declaration requirements where products are traded and not already using market-specific labels.
However, FSANZ said the change will eventually pay off when factoring the impact food allergens has on society.
The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) Food Allergy fact sheet states that food allergy occurs in around 10% of infants, 4–8% of children and about 2% of adults in Australia and New Zealand.
This suggests that between 656,045 and 856,178 people annually experience food allergies.
FSANZ estimate the societal cost of food allergies to be between $6 and 8.1 billion per year.
The five-year implementation period is also expected to enable the vast majority of businesses to update their labelling within their normal label update cycle, reducing new label costs by 70% (down to $31.5 million or $2100 per SKU).
FSANZ estimates, with all factors considered, the change would need to result in a reduction of at least 0.25% of the annual societal cost of food allergies over a ten-year period to provide a benefit.