An estimated 4 per cent of adults and 8 per cent of children in the EU - the total population tops 380 million - suffer from food allergies, according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations.
Keeping a pace with the rise in allergies, new legislation brought into the EU at the end of 2004, and enforced in November this year, imposes considerable legal requirements to curb the risk for food allergy sufferers.
Directive 2003/89/EC, amending Directive 2000/13, essentially means on food labels food makers must flag up a host of possible allergen ingredients and their derivatives: cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soy, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.
The UK's Food Standards Agency said this week it is compiling a guidance, aimed mainly at small and medium sized enterprises, to focus particularly on avoiding cross-contamination and using appropriate labelling.
The advice is the result of work with food manfacturers, retailers, consumer groups and enforcement bodies.
"The purpose of the best practice guidance is to set out general principles that can be applied to the control of specific allergenic ingredients in different situations," says the FSA.
The consultation will run until 6 December 2005.
Although legislation requiring the labelling of deliberate allergenic ingredients comes into effect in November 2005, there are currently no statutory controls governing the labelling of possible allergen cross-contamination of foods along the food supply chain.
The FSA document sets out voluntary best practice advice to food producers and retailers on how to assess the risks of cross-contamination of a food product with an allergenic food or food ingredient, and then to determine whether advisory labelling is appropriate.
"This is intended to lead to a common understanding by food producers and retailers, enforcement bodies and consumers of when warning labels should, or should not, be used and what they mean for the affected consumer," adds the agency.
According to the FSA, some consumers have indicated that the use of symbols to alert them to the presence or absence of allergens would be helpful, such as the use of the 'crossed grain' symbol to indicate products that can be consumed by those who need a gluten-free diet.
But there would need to be a common approach taken so that it was clear whether the symbols were used as a warning to indicate the presence of the allergen, or in a positive way to indicate that the product was free from that particular allergen.
In addition, says the FSA, in light of the range of allergens that could be involved, the use of individual symbols is not likely to be practical.
One option, they continue, would be to develop a single 'allergen alert' symbol that could be used to help consumers find allergen labelling information, including both ingredients information and also possible cross-contamination information.
All comments should be sent to Mark Boden, Food Allergy Branch, Food Standards Agency, Room 511C, Aviation House, 125 Kingsway, London, WC2B 6NH.