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Reading food labels for food allergens

It is important to check food labels for allergens every time you buy a product. Manufacturers can change ingredients and processes at any time.

What is different under PEAL?

Food allergen labelling laws in Australia is set by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

In 2021, Plain English Allergen Labelling (PEAL) was introduced to make it easier to find allergen information on food labels. Food companies have some time to make these changes.

All products that are packaged after the 25th February 2024 must use PEAL labelling. Foods packaged before this date with the previous allergen labelling can be legally sold until 25th February 2026.

This means that you need to know how to find allergen information on foods packaged with old and new labelling until February 2026.  

These two videos explain what allergen information must be shown on a food label, and how to find allergen information on foods packaged with old labelling and new PEAL labelling.

Reading labels – Part 1 | What information must appear on a food label

Reading labels – Part 2 | How to find allergens on food labels

 

What allergen information must be shown on food labels?

reading food labelsFood packaging in Australia must show these food allergens if they are an ingredient:

  • peanut
  • tree nuts - almond, Brazil nut, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pine nut, pistachio, walnut. 
  • egg
  • milk (this includes all dairy foods from cow, sheep or goat milk)
  • fish
  • crustacea (for example, prawns, lobster)
  • molluscs (for example, squid, mussels) 
  • sesame seeds
  • soybeans
  • cereals containing gluten and their products - rye, barley, oats and cereals bread from these grains.
  • lupin

Sulphites must be shown if there is 10mg/kg or more of sulphites in the food.

Imported foods must also be labelled in this way. 

Food allergens must be shown when the allergen is an ingredient, part of another ingredient (for example, milk in a chocolate chip that is in a biscuit), a food additive or a processing aid.

Food that is served by cafés, restaurants, takeaway outlets or bakeries, does not have to have a label. The seller must provide accurate information about food allergens when the customer asks.

What is different about Plain English Allergen Labelling (PEAL)?

Before PEAL, the labelling laws did not set how and where allergens should be shown on food labels. Allergens were shown in different ways and using many different names.

Under PEAL, allergen information must be written in the statement of ingredients and in an allergen summary statement using the plain English name:  

Food Allergens

Under PEAL:

  • Allergens must be listed in bold in the statement of ingredients next to the actual ingredient name (for example wheat maltodextrin).
  • The allergens must also be listed in an allergen summary statement beginning with the word ‘contains’. The ‘contains’ statement can be above, below or on either side of the ingredient list.

This is an example of how foods should be labelled with PEAL:

2021 Food Industry Guide to Allergen Management and Labelling for Aus and NZ

Other important changes under PEAL:

  • The word ‘nut’ or ‘tree nut’ can no longer be used. Only the name of the specific tree nut (almond, Brazil nut, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pine nut, pistachio and walnut) is to be included in the statement of ingredients list and allergen summary statement. 
  • Fish, crustacea and mollusc must be shown as separate allergens in both the ingredients list and summary statement. Before PEAL, molluscs were usually declared under 'fish'. 

Wheat and gluten under PEAL:

  • If wheat is in the food, wheat must be shown in the statement of ingredients and in the summary statement. If gluten is also present, both wheat and gluten must be in the summary statement. Before PEAL, wheat was grouped with 'cereals containing gluten'. 
  • If other grains that contain gluten are in the food, the specific grain must be listed in the statement of ingredients. This applies to rye, oats and barley. For these grains, only gluten is used in the summary statement. Companies can no longer use ‘cereals containing gluten’.

How to find allergen information on foods packaged with old allergen labelling laws

Under the old labelling requirements, food companies did not have to specify the plain English name of the common food allergen. 

Old labels can use other names for the common food allergens. For example, instead of writing ‘egg’ on the label, they might right 'albumin’, which is an ingredient that comes from egg.

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia has Food Allergen Cards that list other words for the common allergens to help you understand food labels packaged with the old labelling laws.

Make sure you check the packaging carefully because plain English names may not have been used yet. Read all ingredient information on the packaging, not just allergen summary statements. Under the old law, summary statements were voluntary and not regulated so may not be very accurate.

More information about the Food Standards Code is available from the FSANZ website: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/food-standards-code/legislation

Are you confused about wheat and gluten on food labels?

What is gluten?

  • Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and cereals that are bred from these grains (such as triticale).
  • It is easy to be confused about the difference between wheat allergy, coeliac disease and gluten intolerance.

Wheat allergy and gluten

  • A person with a wheat allergy can have a serious, immediate allergic reaction to any of the proteins found in wheat, not just wheat gluten.
  • People with a wheat allergy must avoid wheat, but they may be able to eat other cereals containing gluten such as rye, barley and oats, if they are not allergic to them.
  • For a person with a wheat allergy, it is important to check for all wheat ingredients on a food label, even in foods that are labelled 'gluten-free'. 
  • The label should also be checked for any other grains the person is allergic to.

Coeliac disease and gluten

  • Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition, not a food allergy.
  • If someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, it will not cause a life-threatening reaction. It can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea and may cause serious, long term health problems.
  • People with coeliac disease must avoid all grains and foods that contain gluten. They must not eat food that has been contaminated with gluten.

Are you confused about milk (dairy) allergy and lactose free products?

Milk (dairy) allergy and lactose intolerance are different.

  • People with milk (dairy) allergy are allergic to the protein in milk and can have anaphylaxis or allergic reactions to foods containing milk (dairy).
  • Lactose is a type of sugar in milk. People with lactose intolerance cannot digest lactose and may feel sick or have diarrhoea if they eat it. They will not have a life-threatening reaction.
  • Lactose free products have had the lactose sugar removed.
  • Lactose free products still contain milk protein and can cause anaphylaxis in a person with milk (dairy) allergy.
  • Milk (dairy) allergy means all dairy foods such as milk, butter, yoghurt, ice-cream, and cheese have to be avoided - even if they are lactose free.
  • “Dairy free” and “vegan” products are made from plants and should not contain any milk or dairy protein at all. Always check the statement of ingredients carefully and any precautionary allergen labelling statements for milk (dairy).

What are precautionary allergen labelling statements?

  • Precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) statements are used to warn people that a food product might be accidentally contaminated with an allergen.  This can make the food a risk to someone with that food allergy.
  • These two videos explain what PAL statements are and how to choose products with or without PAL statements. 
  • Cross contamination of food allergens from one food to another can happen during growing, transport, storing and making the food.
  • There are many different PAL statements. They are not regulated by the Food Standards Code which means companies can choose to use them, or not.
  • Examples of PAL statements include:
    • “May contain…”
    • “May be present” 
    • “Made on equipment that also produces products containing…”
    • “allergen warning….”
  • You need to check the whole label for PAL statements because not all companies put PAL statements near the ingredients list.
  • You should discuss with your allergist or dietitian whether you should eat foods containing PAL statements.
  • If you would like more information about the risk of cross contamination for a product, contact the manufacturer of the product.

What about foods that do not have a label?

  • Some foods, like bakery products, food from a butcher and delicatessen items such as cheese and processed meats, may not be packaged and may be sold with no label.  
  • The Food Standards Code states that the seller must be able to provide information about the allergen content of an unlabelled product when a customer asks.   
  • People with food allergy should also ask about the risk of cross contamination of allergens for unlabelled foods, for example buying sliced ham from a deli that may have used the same slicer for cheese.
  • This video explains how to choose unlabelled foods. 

Content created March 2024