As you may know, I’m the editor of Foods Matter, an information and support website for people with food allergies an intolerances. Recently, we’ve been running a survey to find out people’s experiences with food labelling. The results are now in and I thought you might be interested to see them.
When asked what they thought when faced with a ‘may contain warning’:
45% said that they were ‘totally confused’
36% said that they thought the food would contain the allergen and
19% said that they thought it would not……
When asked whether this lack clarity made them anxious:
41% said that it made them ‘extremely’, ‘very’ or ‘quite’ anxious
56% said that it really annoyed them
If faced with a food with a ‘may contain’ warning on it, 46% said that they would not buy it
If the ingredient they were allergic to is not mentioned on the pack at all (no may contain warning but no ‘freefrom’ positive claim either):
58% assumed that it was safe
13% assumed it was not safe because it did not carry a freefrom claim
29% didn’t know and didn’t assume anything!
So why were we asking all these questions?
Well, as many of you will be only too aware, ‘may contain’ warnings are currently incredibly confusing because you have no way of knowing which of the following scenarios is the correct one:
- A product with a ‘may contain’ warning may have a genuinely high risk of contamination by that allergen, so should not be eaten by anyone with a serious allergy.
- A product with a ‘may contain’ warning may present no serious risk to the allergic consumer, but the company or the company’s lawyers fear prosecution should contamination occur and therefore feel they have to protect themselves by adding ‘may contain’ warnings.
- A product may not carry any PAL or ‘may contain’ warnings because the manufacturer has done proper risk assessment and is confident that all of the allergen control measures that they have put in place are effective and the product presents a negligible risk to the allergic consumer. Therefore, following the FSA’s guidance, they are not using a ‘may contain’ warning.
- A product may not carry any PAL or ‘may contain’ warnings because the manufacturer either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about allergen contamination and therefore has not added a ‘may contain’ warning.
As a result the allergic consumer either has to run unacceptable risks by ignoring the warnings altogether or have his/her choice of food severely limited by warnings which may be totally unnecessary.
And, in fact, ‘freefrom’ manufacturers are not in a much better place. As far as they are concerned:
- If a manufacturer does jump through all the hoops and produces a product that genuinely does not need to carry a PAL or ‘may contain’ warning, they have no way of positively communicating that fact to the consumer. So, the consumer may not trust the product because it does not carry any PAL.
- Even if a manufacturer produces a product that does not need to carry a warning, because of the general mood of paranoia about contamination, they may feel obliged to carry an unnecessary warning – thus restricting their market and annoying their customers.
- Manufacturers may not declare products to be allergen free, even when they are, because they are afraid of the potential liability and impact around possible contamination, thus again restricting their market.
I certainly know of manufacturers who would fall into all three of those brackets.
How has this state of affairs come to pass?
Well, in this case, the blame does really lie with Brussels.
In 2011 the commission started work on new regulations designed to make life safer for allergic people by making it easier for them to identify allergens in their food. And on the whole they made a good job of it. Now that the 14 major allergens have to be highlighted in ingredients lists it is easier to find them. But while they dealt competently with ‘intentionally included’ ingredients – the ones that appear in the ingredients list – they entirely side stepped the issue of possible contamination, sparking ‘may contain labelling’.
There are reasons why they did so, but in practice, and to the frustration of industry and regulators across Europe, they decided that they did not ‘have sufficient evidence’ to make any meaningful pronouncements – and moved on. Since it takes a long time for the wheels of the commission to grind, this subject is not likely to come up for discussion again for, probably, five years. Which means that for the next five years, neither industry nor the consumer has any guidance or guidelines to follow in dealing with allergen contamination. Hence our ‘initiative’.
What we are suggesting is offering an independent, validated accreditation, with an accompanying on-pack logo, to manufacturers whose allergen control is sufficiently robust to obviate the need for any PAL or ‘may contain’ warnings on their pre-packed foods. This would be in line with the existing Food Standards Agency guidelines which specifically state that if there is no ‘demonstrable and significant’ risk of allergen contamination warning labels should not be used.
We would then back this up with an extensive consumer education campaign to ensure that the accreditation logo is recognised throughout the allergy community and more widely into the food intolerance, IBS and general ‘freefrom’ community.
The theory is that this will enable the allergic and intolerant consumer to buy warning-free foods with confidence knowing that, if they carry the ‘Allergen Safe’ (or whatever it turns out to be) logo, the manufacture was well controlled and the food does not present a risk. The result will be to increase their choice of foods and reduce their exposure to risk.
It should also allow the food industry to market their foods as safe for a far wider range of food allergy and intolerance sufferers with confidence that consumers are protected and without the fear of prosecution.
Interestingly, nothing to do with our survey but part of a work done for the FDIN’s recentFreeFrom – Tapping into a new healthier Lifestyle seminar, YouGov asked some questions about ‘freefrom’ logos and these were the answers:
77% of respondents would find symbol useful if backed by a trusted body
81% would only find a symbol useful if it were used by all manufacturers
This was very much as we had thought – it will only work and be useful if it is widely adopted throughout the industry. So now our mission is to see how we can work with the food industry to bring this about….
At our ‘concept launch’ on the 18th November at Food Matters Live we hope be able to spell out in a little more detail how we might set about this – so for now, just watch this space!!
Meanwhile… Why is it so difficult to ‘regulate’ allergen contamination?
As a freefrom food manufacturer, you want to create foods which will be safe for those with food allergies to eat. So, you want to create them with the minimum possible amount of that allergen – ideally with none at all. However, that is not as simple as it sounds.
How little is zero?
Although laboratory tests have become more sophisticated, they are not perfect and there is only so low that they can go. So although a test may suggest that there is none of a specific allergen in a food, there may actually be a tiny amount, but too small an amount for the test to pick up.
Does this matter?
This is the crucial question. It only matters if highly allergic people are going to react to that tiny amount. So what a manufacturer needs to know is what is the smallest amount of an allergen to which a highly allergic person will react. Once they know that, they can gear their production and their protocols to ensure that their products always test below that level.
And why does this matter so much to industry?
Once a ‘safe’ level has been set (such as the 20ppm/parts per million which is now accepted as being ‘safe’ for coeliacs to consume), even if a tiny amount of the allergen is found in the product, as long as it is lower than the established ‘safe’ level, the manufacturer cannot be held liable as they have met the requirements of the regulations.
Moreover, once that level has been set and agreed, provided they can ensure that the levels of allergen in their products remains below that level, they do not have to add ‘Precautionary Allergen Labelling’ (PAL) or ‘may contain’ warnings on their foods.
So, what are the ‘safe’ levels?
Well, that is the problem… As of now, no ‘safe levels’ have been set…
For many reasons…..
1. Every allergic person is different so while one might react to 5ppm of an allergen, another might only react if they consumed 25 or 50 or even 100ppm.
2. At what level of an allergen an allergic person may react will also be affected by a whole range of other factors: whether they are feeling under the weather or have a cold; whether they have just taken some exercise; whether, if they are a woman, they are menstruating and many, many other factors that we do not even yet know about.
3. How they react to the allergen may depend on what they eat it with. So in very simplistic terms, if an allergic person ate a peanut they might react immediately and dramatically. But if they ate a bit of a peanut in a chocolate bar, the peanut protein would be coated in fat and far less accessible to their immune system so they might react less dramatically, or only after a delay.
4. Even if you decide that it would be safe for an allergic person to eat a portion of food which contained, for example, 5ppm of their allergen, what happens if they have a maxi portion – or if they like it so much that they have two or three helpings? They would then be consuming two or three times above the level that was thought to be safe.
The European Union has spent a vast amount of money and scientific effort over the last 10 years in assessing the allergic population across the continent in an effort to set threshold levels for the major allergens which would trigger ‘action levels’ in terms of precautionary warnings etc. These, in effect, would give food manufacturers allergen thresholds to which to work.
However, the European Food Safety Authority, having reviewed the evidence, have decided (in 2015) that more research is needed before they are prepared to move forward. This effectively means that there will be no progress on setting any sorts of action levels or thresholds for at least another 5 years.