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Allergenic ingredients in pre-packaged foods

In our fast-paced modern lives, where time is a luxury and convenience is the norm, the reliance on pre-packaged convenient foods in our diets has become part of everyday life. This trend is driven by our need for quick meal solutions, budget-friendly food options and changes in lifestyle, such as smaller households, less interest in cooking from scratch and increasing demand for easily accessible and varied food choices.

This increased consumption pre-packaged foods not only raises concerns about nutrition, obesity and the environment, but also poses health risks due to the allergens they may contain. Allergens are proteins found in food and can often be present in various forms within a single food item and have the potential to trigger allergic reactions in some people. In the case of an allergic reaction, the immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless food ingredient as a threat, leading to a range of physical reactions, from skin rashes to more severe reactions, including breathing difficulties. Allergenic ingredients in pre-packaged foods are a health risk as allergens are more likely to be hidden in pre-packaged foods and the complexity of labelling and the risk of cross-contamination during manufacturing also exacerbates the risk.

Typical Allergenic foods such as milk, nuts, eggs etc.

In this article, we look at the allergenic ingredients in pre-packaged foods, starting with defining the different types of pre-packaged foods and understanding what the fourteen key allergens are, as stated by food safety regulations. We then examine how this allergen information must be presented on pre-packaged food labels. Following that, we explore the difficulties associated with allergenic ingredients in pre-packaged foods, which include cross-contamination and the complexities in labelling. We also discuss positive advancements in managing allergenic ingredients in pre-packaged food such as the introduction of allergen-free production methods. Finally, we note that ensuring the safety of pre-packaged foods, particularly for those with food allergies, is the responsibility of the integrated efforts of food safety regulations, the awareness and vigilance of consumers and the strict allergen management processes of manufacturers and retailers.

Are there different types of pre-packaged foods?

Pre-packaged food describes food that is placed into packaging before being offered for sale to consumers. There are two types of prepacked foods: Pre-packaged for Direct Sale (PPDS) and Commercially Pre-packaged Foods. PPDS foods are those prepared and packaged at the same location where they are sold, such as sandwiches in a café or salads in a deli, where the consumer does not see these foods being made. On the other hand, commercially pre-packaged foods are prepared and packaged at a different location before being sold, encompassing most of the food seen on supermarket shelves or in local grocery stores.

Somebody making sandwiches

Which items are considered allergenic ingredients in pre-packaged foods?

In the UK, the EU Food Information for Consumers (EU FIC) and the Food Information Regulations 2014 require that fourteen key allergens be prominently highlighted within the list of ingredients for all foods.

Poster showing the 14 allergens.

These are:

  • Celery
  • Cereals containing gluten
  • Crustaceans
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Lupin
  • Milk
  • Molluscs
  • Mustard
  • Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soya
  • Sulphur Dioxide (sometimes known as sulphites)

For more information on each of the fourteen allergens mentioned above, refer to the article titled: What are the fourteen allergens on The Nationwide Caterers Association website.

Labelling and allergenic ingredients in pre-packaged foods

Labelling plays an important role in this allergen identification, providing essential information about the contents of packaged foods. Pre-packaged food must include an ingredients list, with the 14 key allergens distinctly highlighted on the product label – for example, in bold, italic or coloured type.

Allergens must be clearly identified by the name of the allergenic ingredient as specified in the EU FIC Annex II. For instance, labelling should read ‘tofu (soya)’ or ‘tahini paste (sesame)’. If a food contains multiple ingredients or processing aids derived from the same allergen, each one should stand out on the label, such as ‘skimmed milk powder, whey (milk)…’

A jar with a list of ingredients on showing allergies in bolded print

For distance selling, which includes online sales, telephone or catalogue orders, the EU FIC rules stipulate that businesses must provide the same level of allergen information as they would in a retail setting. The allergen information must be available before the completion of the purchase and also upon delivery. However, these rules do not apply to prepacked foods sold through vending machines.

October 2021 saw the introduction of Natasha’s Law, named in memory of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who tragically passed away due to an allergic reaction from a sandwich lacking specific allergen labelling. Her death highlighted that a loophole existed in previous food labelling regulations concerning foods prepacked for direct sale (PPDS), such as sandwiches prepared and sold at the same location. These PPDS items weren’t subject to the same allergen labelling requirements as other prepacked foods. The new Natasha’s Law mandates that all PPDS food items must have comprehensive ingredient listings on their labels, including clear allergen information. This change brings about enhanced transparency and safety, allowing consumers to access allergen information directly on the packaging, aligning PPDS products with the labelling standards of other pre-packaged foods.

Cross-contamination and managing allergenic ingredients in pre-packaged foods

Managing allergens in pre-packaged foods presents challenges, even with strict food safety regulations. Cross-contamination, which is the accidental mixing of allergens into products during production, transportation or storage, can easily occur and unfortunately is hard to prevent completely.

Businesses have the option to include a precautionary allergy advice statement on the label. However, short statements such as “Contains nuts” or “Contains shellfish” on their own are no longer deemed sufficient for food labels, except in cases where the product is not required to display an ingredient list.

Eliminating the risks of allergen ingredients in pre-packaged foods

To reduce the risk of allergen cross-contamination in pre-packaged foods, modern and advanced food production follows several best practices, helping to safeguard consumers with allergies. These include:

  • The use of dedicated production lines for allergen-free products.
  • Rigorous cleaning protocols to eliminate allergen residues.
  • Allergen management programs that oversee the entire production process.
  • Strict supplier control to ensure ingredients are free from unwanted allergens.
  • Advanced testing and validation methods to improve the accuracy of identifying and listing allergens on labels.
  • Separate storage for allergenic ingredients.
  • Robust traceability systems for tracking ingredients and preventing cross-contamination.
  • The introduction of allergen-free cooking practices by implementing strict environments in their production facilities to avoid allergen exposure.


A food production line with biscuits

The future

As we have explored, the abundance of pre-packaged foods in our diets brings with it not only convenience but also significant challenges in allergen management. Fortunately, Natasha’s Law and the EU FIC’s stringent labelling requirements has helped in safeguarding consumers, particularly those vulnerable to food allergies. In addition, the introduction of food production practices, including advanced allergen detection and cross-contamination prevention measures, further reflects the food industry’s commitment to consumer safety. However, the responsibility does not rest solely with regulators and manufacturers; consumers also play a vital role in staying informed of the allergenic ingredients in their food. Going forward, it will be the collective effort of all stakeholders to ensure that pre-packaged foods are not just convenient and nutritious but also safe for everyone.

More resources

Food Standards Agency – Introduction to Allergen Labelling for PPDS food

Food Standards Agency – Food allergen labelling and information requirements technical guidance: General background on allergens

Food Standards Agency – Allergen guidance for food businesses

Food Standards Agency – Allergen guidance for food manufacturers

Food Standards Agency – Allergen guidance for institutional caterers

Food Standards Agency – To locate your local authority food safety team in your area to enquire about your food business responsibilities.

Interested in our online food allergen training?

If you are interested in learning more about food allergen management, you can take our online Food Allergen Awareness Training. This will help you identify common allergens, understand and interpret food labels and recognise hidden allergens in pre-packaged foods. It also enhances awareness of cross-contamination prevention methods and regulatory requirements for allergen safety so you can advocate for safer food practices and ensure compliance with food safety standards.

Contact our friendly customer support team who are always ready to discuss your food safety and food allergen training needs.

  • Food Safety