The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said it has started its consultation on the way new European Union (EU) labelling rules are implemented in the UK.

The improved labelling rules will provide consumers with more comprehensive information about the ingredients in pre-packed foods and will be particularly helpful for people with food allergies and intolerance to more easily avoid certain foods. 

Just a few types of food are to blame for 90% of allergic reactions, according to the FSA, but current rules do not require that these particular foods are always labelled, although increasing numbers of manufacturers are doing so voluntarily.

However, in September last year the EU agreed to amend current labelling legislation so that consumers are given comprehensive ingredient listings information. The new EU rules list 12 food ingredients - milk, eggs, peanuts, nuts from trees (including Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, almonds and walnuts), fish, crustaceans (including crab and shrimps), soya, wheat, celery, mustard, sesame and sulphur dioxide - that will have to be clearly labelled, if not already included in the name of the product.

Labels will also need to give clear information about ingredients made from allergens, for example whether a glaze is egg or milk.

The FSA said that key to improving allergen labelling will be the removal of the '25% rule'. Currently, manufacturers do not have to list all the ingredients of a food. For example, sometimes a food is part of another food product, such as sponge fingers in a trifle. While 'sponge fingers' must be listed as part of the trifle ingredients, if they make up less than 25% of the trifle then the ingredients in the sponge fingers needn't be listed. This prevents people from identifying ingredients, such as wheat in sponge fingers, that they may need or want to avoid. However, with the '25% rule' abolished, virtually all ingredients will have to be listed.

The regulations will come into force at the end of November 2004 with a one-year transitional period for manufacturers to adapt their packaging and labelling to the new rules.