Food safety and quality

Looking at food labels from the perspective of a food safety expert


As the Codex Committee on Food Labelling gathers for its 46th session, we spoke with Christine Kopko, FAO Food Safety Officer, about the assurance that labels bring to consumers and the importance of international approaches to indicating what is in our food products. 

  • Why should consumers read food labels? 

I think, as kids, we spent a lot of time unconsciously reading the cereal box as we slurped our breakfast during our morning routine. In fact, just the other day, I caught my teens comparing the fibre content in the respective cereal choices rather than their normal “who’s who on TikTok” chatter!  Although it is almost impossible for your average consumer to appreciate the extent of the science and public health considerations that go into creating the policy framework on which food labels are based, it is increasing clear, that consumers want to know, now more than ever, what they are purchasing, feeding their families and consuming. A food label provides a wealth of information – everything from…the common name of the food; the country of origin of the product, in some situations; the list of ingredients; cooking and storage instructions for safe handling; to a “use-by” or expiration date. All this information is available to the consumer so that they can make healthy and informed choices. 

  • Can you tell us a bit about Codex and the upcoming committee meeting on food labelling? 

The Codex Alimentarius, or Codex – as it is often referred to – is the international body responsible for setting the rules for food, including food labels. In many cases, the rule agreed upon within Codex are used by governments around the world as the basis for the country’s food laws and regulations. As part of Codex guidelines for food labelling, it is clearly stated that labels cannot be false, misleading or deceptive – essentially, a food label should not lead us to believe that a food is something that it is not. This is a perfect example of how Codex works to protect the health and best interest of consumers, while also promoting local and international food trade. 

Any Codex Committee meeting is exciting – delegations from over 180 countries come together to discuss and come to consensus on topics that eventually become international food standards, guidelines or best practices. At this week’s Codex Committee on Food Labelling the topics of discussion include Front of Pack Nutritional Labelling, those little icons highlighting some nutritional info that we are seeing more and more on products these days; requirement for selling prepackaged foods over the internet, another timely topic; and my personal favourite, food allergen labelling. 

  • Food allergen labelling is on the agenda – what can you tell us about that? 

We all know of someone with one, or in many cases, multiple food allergies.  Food allergies are serious, and, for the most part, there is no cure. Food allergic consumers need to avoid the foods that they are allergic to by diligently reading food product labels. These consumers are at the mercy of food manufacturers, policy developers and regulators. They need to see the list of ingredients on the package to make safe food choices. For this reason, it is critical that food allergen labelling requirements be sufficiently protective, enforceable and well understood by the food industry so that they can comply.

One important area of focus for the Codex committee this week is what we call Precautionary Allergen Labelling or PAL…these are those “may contain” allergen statements that we can find on food packages. There is currently a lot of misconceptions and confusion around the use of these types of statements, so we are looking to provide clear guidance on how they should be used. 

  • How are allergens not included on a label - how does it happen? 

A food label with an undeclared allergen is not only misleading and false but can result in severe health consequences for allergic consumers. Undeclared allergens are either due to the food manufacture failing to declare an allergen present in the product as part of the list of ingredients, the allergen not being declared using plain language – not everyone is familiar with the term “casein” meaning milk, or the allergen being accidentally added into the product through cross-contact, for example, when common equipment is used for two products. 

  • What happens to foods with undeclared allergens? 

Undeclared food allergens, when identified, will typically result in a food recall – a situation where the food manufacture or the importer responsible for the safety of the product must work quickly to remove all non-compliant product from the market. Over 50 percent of food recalls in North America are due to undeclared allergens, which, in addition to representing a health risk to susceptible populations, are costly to the industry and contribute to food loss.   

  • Why are you a fan of food labels? 

Both on a personal and professional level, I’ve seen the consequences of undeclared allergens. My daughter is allergic to peanuts so reading food labels is part of my daily routine. As a risk manager with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, I was responsible for food safety investigations related to reports of allergic reactions. Managing allergens is critical to keeping food safe!

Read more about the Codex Committee on Food Labelling 

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