With a plethora of new EU labelling legislation recently being passed or soon to come into force, drinks manufacturers are having to adapt to new regulations. Steve Emmett examines the new legislation and the steps manufacturers will have to take in response.

Food law is constantly evolving to reflect consumer needs and this is particularly true at the moment because of the volume of EU-wide legislation that has recently come into force or is in the process of being passed. The big labelling issues are the way in which allergens are described, the labelling of fat, sugar and salt under the Food Standard Agency's proposed 'traffic lights' initiative, and the labelling of health claims.

The EU food labelling directive 2003/89/EC on allergens labelling, which came into force from November 2005, states that all allergenic ingredients and derivatives must be labelled on pre-packaged products - including soft drinks. With the introduction of more dairy-based soft drinks, as well as the risk of cross-contamination in the factory, this legislation is particularly pertinent for all.

The new directive means that the foods that account for 90% of food allergies - cereal containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, milk, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seeds and sulphur dioxide and sulphites at certain concentrations - will have to be clearly identified on packaging. 'May contain…' statements should only be used if there is a real risk of cross- contamination. Manufacturers must check all their ingredients for the presence of the listed allergens and clearly indicate their presence in the labelling. Manufacturers must also monitor controls operated by their ingredient suppliers, either by auditing or detailed questionnaires or both.

While the EU directive represents a positive move forward, it does not address potential cross-contamination in the factory or the dangers presented by products derived from specified allergens that are not allergenic, such as refined oils. The EU has published a list which has been included in an amendment to the Food Labelling Regulations, detailing a number of food ingredients derived from allergenic foods which when processed do not contain any residual allergens.

The key for the whole food industry, including beverages, is risk assessment and traceability. Being able to have systems in place that allow the product to be traced from farm to table is essential, especially when there is the possibility that the product is potentially life threatening.

Allergen risks can be kept to a minimum by ensuring a good manufacturing process and relevant controls. An effective allergy management programme should be implemented in the factory using a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) system, and from January 2006, all food and drink businesses must operate an HACCP-based food safety management system.

By incorporating allergens into the risk-assessment process, companies will be able to track the flow of allergens into the business from suppliers and at key points throughout production. An HACCP system can also reduce the risk of cross-contamination since controls can be put in place within raw material weighing and preparation, while also providing for complete segregation of allergenic ingredients, if applicable. Specialist companies can advise on HACCP plans and risk assessment within the factory as well as providing training for staff. They can also carry out an analysis of finished products and advise on allergen labelling.

'May contain nuts' really should only be used as a last resort on food labelling. New directives mean that legally food manufacturers must label products accurately, but it is the responsibility of the food industry and those companies that advise it to address the allergens issue correctly.  Anaphylaxis organisations do not want allergy sufferers' choice of foods to be unnecessarily restricted by manufacturers taking an over-cautious approach.

The UK Food Standards Agency has said it favours a 'Multiple traffic light' labelling system and was consulting on this issue at the end of last year. For manufacturers of soft drinks, many of which contain a high sugar content, the traffic light system is controversial since it only gives an at-a-glance view of whether a food or drink has high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. In tests, some consumer groups have found this type of labelling difficult to understand. The best approach is for drink manufacturers to seek professional advice on labelling content.

To date, legislation surrounding the production and labelling of energy drinks has been fairly vague. New EU legislation on nutrition and health claims is likely to be introduced later this year and come into effect in early-2007. It will give consumers a high level of choice and protection. Any claim, such as 'low fat', will need to be an approved claim. The directive will also improve opportunities for import and export, since all European countries will be 'singing from the same hymn sheet', rather than individual countries setting their own rules.

While the large manufacturers will have the resources to introduce the new measures, smaller companies should employ experts to ensure that their products meet the new criteria. In product analysis, independent laboratories have the expertise to ensure a food supplement meets the minimum and maximum levels set by the new directive, while for labelling independent nutritional analysts can produce data for labels. Manufacturers will also need to take professional advice to ensure that nutritional claims are legal, correct and safe.

Source: Soft Drinks International

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