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Reading food labels and sourcing safe food

food_labels.jpgGoing to the supermarket takes on a whole new meaning when you are avoiding common foods. You need to learn to read food labels and prepare more foods from scratch that you may have before. And every time you buy, you will need to read every label every time – manufacturers change their ingredients or processing aids from time to time!

Since December 2002, New Zealand’s food labelling laws require that the most common allergenic foods be stated on food labels. This includes milk, egg, soy, peanut, tree nut, sesame, fish, shellfish and gluten-containing cereals, including wheat.

While it is not mandatory for manufacturers to include precautionary statements such as ‘may contain traces of peanuts’, these are usually only used if the manufacturer feels there is a significant risk of cross contamination; for example, if biscuits containing peanuts are produced on the same line as another biscuit.
Often, those allergens are staple ingredients in many food items and thousands of ingredients are derived from the allergenic food. Then they are faced with a proliferation of ‘warning’ statements about the allergenic food – does the food contain, ‘may contain’ or not contain the allergen? These are questions that continue to frustrate consumers and manufacturers.

When faced with a diagnosis of food allergy, one of the first questions you probably ask is “how do I find safe food”?

We have an allergen labelling guide you can download here that will show you where the main allergens may appear.

Here we provide an outline of what the regulations say about allergen labelling, what they don’t say and how regulators and the food industry themselves are handling some of the uncertainties.


Food Standards Australia New Zealand Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is an independent statutory agency established by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991. Working within an integrated food regulatory system involving the governments of Australia and the New Zealand Government, they set food standards for the two countries.

FSANZ develops food standards, and joint codes of practice with industry, covering the content and labelling of food sold in Australia and New Zealand. The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (‘the Code’) is made up of many standards, many of which are cross referenced and are very complex. Standard 1.2.3 requires the most common food allergens to be declared on food labels. Where labels are not required (for example, food served in restaurants etc) this information must be provided to the consumer on request, either verbally or in writing. The allergens that must be declared when they are an ingredient; or an ingredient of a compound ingredient; or a food additive or component of a food additve; or a processing aid or component of a processing aid. include:

• Cereals containing gluten and their products, namely, wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt and their hybridised strains other than where these substances are present in beer and spirits standardised in Standards 2.7.2 and 2.7.5 respectively
• Crustacea and their products
• Egg and egg products
• Fish and fish products
• Milk and milk products
• Peanuts and soybeans, and their products
• Added Sulphites in concentrations of 10mg/kg or more
• Tree nuts and sesame seeds and their products

You can visit the FSANZ website for more information on the Code.

In New Zealand, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) administers the legislation around food for sale, primary processing, exports of plant products, use of agricultural compounds and imports / exports of food and food-related products. The legislation includes the Food Act 1981 which is currently under review (the Domestic Food Review) and will be replaced with the Food Bill in 2008. This will mean that everyone who handles food in New Zealand will be required to meet the legislation, which will include allergen controls required within a risk management tool called a Food Control Plan. For more information about the Domestic Food Review, visit the NZFSA website

Warning statements

The only allergen warning statement that is included in the Code pertains to products that contain royal jelly:

“This product contains royal jelly which has been reported to cause severe allergic reactions and in rare cases, fatalities, especially in asthma and allergy sufferers.”

Allergen warning statements, such as “may contain …. “ or “produced in a facility that also handles …” are not regulated by the Code, and there are no regulatory guidelines for their use. Hence, if food companies consider an allergen warning statement to be necessary, then it is up to them when and how to use one.

There are many complex issues that food companies have to take into account. Many companies source food ingredients from all over the world. They need to know whether the ingredient contains allergens or whether there has been a risk of cross contamination with allergens. Once they have it on site there are many allergen management issues they take into account when a decision is made whether to place a warning on the label.

As a result of the complexity of the issues the Australasian food industry have established the Allergen Forum in order to provide food companies with guidelines on managing allergens as well as a risk assessment framework to help companies decide whether an allergen warning is needed on their product. Part of the project has been to revise the Australian Food & Grocery Council (AFGC) Food Industry Guide to Allergen Management and Labelling.

The revised guidelines can be viewed on the Allergen Bureau website

This site, which is an initiative of the AFGC and is operated on an industry membership basis, is designed for industry to access information regarding the management of risks associated with food allergens in ingredients and manufactured foods. The website states that it represents a centralised collection of information about food allergens relevant to the Australian and New Zealand Food Industry.


What about supermarket shopping?

The rule of thumb is to read every label, every time but there are other risks with food purchased at stores and supermarkets:
  • Delis and bakeries – different bread or meat cuts may be prepared or sliced on the same equipment, there may be cross contamination between food items displayed together, or between hands or utensils used to handle them.
  • Bulk bins – nuts and seeds may be displayed above or next to other items so may be a risk of contamination into other scoops or bins. Bins may be used for different ingredients. Probably safest to avoid bulk bins when choosing foods for someone with food allergy.

Eating out

Sharing a meal with friends and family at a café or restaurant is something that most of us take for granted and those with allergies can certainly go out with some care and forward planning.
  1. Call ahead. Ask to speak to the manager, and explain your allergy – don’t downplay it Tell them it is life-threatening if that is the case. Have the menu faxed or check online and discuss menu options prior to eating there if possible.
  2. Some people arrange to take their food with them so they can safely enjoy eating with others without ordering restaurant food. You will need to check with the restaurant that this is acceptable to them.
  3. On arrival at the restaurant, ask to speak to the manager or head chef and discuss your allergies again. Ask about menu item ingredients, and be wary of hidden allergens in such things as sauces, marinades, salads and desserts. Some restaurants are happy to prepare a simple meal of, say, grilled meat, potato and a freshly prepared salad, rather than more elaborate menu items that may have been prepared in advance.
  4. Ask about cross contamination controls in the kitchen – check that your meal is being prepared with clean utensils, saucepans, chopping board etc, and that oils used for frying have not been used for other foods.
  5. Remind the staff that all ingredients need to be checked for the presence of allergens – if ingredient labels are not available, avoid that food item.
  6. When the food arrives, look at it and don’t be afraid to double check that the dish is safe.

What if you have reaction to a food product you thought was safe?

If you or your child have a reaction to a food product you thought was safe, it is very important that this is reported to the food business and the authorities as soon as possible after the reaction.

As food-allergic consumers, we have a collective responsibility to do all we can to help ensure safe food for us all. If problems are not routinely reported to food companies, or investigated then there is a risk that they will continue to occur with no redress to companies or raised awareness of the importance of allergen control and labelling.

If you think a product contains an allergen that is not declared on the label, contact The Ministry for Primary Industries MPI (Food Safety) on 0800 693 721 or by email: (

If possible, also, inform Allergy New Zealand of your complaint and who you have passed it onto: (  or ph (09) 623 3912 or 0800 34 0800

In addition:
Keep a sample of the product. Wrap it and put it in the freezer in case it is needed for testing.

See your allergy specialist or doctor. New allergies can develop and it is a good idea to check you have all the appropriate medication prescribed to treat a reaction, and that you know how to use it.