European food labeling has loopholes dangerous for travelers with allergies

July 11, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Q: This summer we will be traveling in the Netherlands with my young daughter, who suffers from a severe food allergy called anaphylaxis. Are packaged foods there labeled with their ingredients, as in the United States?

A: Under current regulations, prepared foods sold throughout the European Community, which includes the Netherlands, have list most ingredients but not the quantities of the ingredients or the percentage of the whole they represent.

The loophole in those regulations, and it is a very big one where people with allergies are concerned, is that if a compound ingredient makes up less than 25 percent of the whole product, then that ingredient's contents do not have to be listed.

If, for instance, sausage represents 20 percent of a frozen pizza, the manufacturer is not obliged to say what that sausage is made of, although any additives do have to be listed.

The European Parliament is discussing a measure that would result in the quantities of the main ingredients being listed. But Lucy Harris, a spokeswoman for Consumers in the European Community Group, a British consumer organization, feels any legislation in this area is four years away from being becoming law.

A European Community directive on nutritional labeling, covering such things as a foodstuff's fat and protein content, is also not all-inclusive.

The directive, issued Sept. 24, 1990, laid down standards for such labeling, but manufacturers are required to give nutrition information, starting next October, only if a nutritional claim is made. In practice, many manufacturers already list the nutritional content, information that is not of such importance to a food allergy sufferer but would help someone allergic to, say, gluten or another nutrient.

The question of foodstuff labeling of any kind is of course compounded when a foreign language is involved. And in the case of children with anaphylaxis, in which the consumption of certain foods could lead to death, there can be no room at all for misunderstanding.

Rather than relying on labeling, the best course of action for someone with such life-threatening allergies who is traveling abroad is to contact an organization dedicated to providing just that kind of information.

In the case of the Netherlands, two groups could help.

The Dutch Food Allergy Association has groups all over the country that would be happy to explain and interpret food labels and would even put travelers in touch with a doctor, if that is required.

The group's mailing address is NVAS, P.O. Box 249, 3740 AE Baarn, the Netherlands.

Another group, the Allergy Clinic, is at Herengracht 69, 3911 J. C. Rhenen, the Netherlands. Its Allergy Information Service operates on the first and third Wednesday of each month from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Call (83) 76-12315 (the dialing code for the Netherlands from the United States is 31).

A spokeswoman said the clinic would be happy to advise anyone with allergies about food labeling in the Netherlands either by phone ormail. The clinic is closed in July.

Similar groups exist in other countries. In England, for instance, Eunice Rose, the head of the National Society for Research into Allergies, says travelers are welcome to write to her or to telephone.

The society is at P.O. Box 45, Hinckley, Leics., LE1D 1JY, (455) 851-546 (the dialing code if calling from the United States is 44; if calling from Britain put a zero in front of the local area code).

The Food Commission, which does not accept money from either the government or the food industry, can supply other useful addresses and phone numbers. The commission is at 5-11 Worship St., 3rd Floor, London EC2A 2BH; (71) 628 7774.

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