Okay, so I’m being a bit facetious. There are some good things about the Allergy & Free From Show – not least that it exists. Plus there were some great keynote speeches (which I’ll post about soon) and fine foodie finds among the cacophony of crap.
It’s the cacophony of crap that concerns me more, though, I’m afraid. It could be my expectations were unduly high. But I had hoped that this would be the one place I might take Sidney and actually feel free to buy him food to eat, safely.
I had visions of a cafe laden with wheat free, egg free, nut free treats – sandwiches made from Dietary Specials bread, maybe (I say DS only because it’s one of the few wheat free brands that doesn’t also contain egg); gluten free pasta with a simple tomato sauce; nut and seed free snack bars. Fruit. Anything. Just somewhere I might actually be able to order lunch and know it had been carefully prepped with allergies in mind.
Fat chance. My irritations are so manifold it’s probably best if I list them:
1. No allergy friendly food in the cafe
Astonishingly, while the hot dishes served up by Leith’s were gluten free, there stood, on the counter, the omnipresent warning: “May contain traces of nuts”. Sandwiches, meanwhile, were bog standard fare – nothing wheat free at all. Pasta and couscous pots were of the non-gluten free variety. Biscuits and snacks either contained nuts and seeds or were made in factories were they were present. And the catering ladies were impeccably trained in the art of not giving a shit. In short, thank god I’d brought (as always) a packed lunch of homemade food for Sidney.
I’ve since been told there have been complaints about this in the past; it’s beyond me why a show supposedly devoted to allergy should offer nothing suitable at the very least for those suffering from the so-called Big 8. I don’t expect pea free, banana free and chickpea free – that would be pushing it. But, for heaven’s sake, try to provide at least one or two things that don’t contain nuts, sesame, egg, dairy or wheat. Never mind soya and the rest.
2. The freebie bag on offer to all vistors…
…contained a sesame-packed bar. Need I say more?
3. The dodgy DIY tests
So what was the biggest and most prominent stand upon entering Olympia? An outfit offering ‘testing’ for a whole catalogue of allergies and intolerances. There isn’t the time or space here to explain the many levels of wrongness, but I refer you to the very experienced and knowledgable health journo Alex Gazzola’s blog here for some of the reasons this offends me so very much. (Not least that if you genuinely suspect an allergy, see a qualified doctor. FFS.)
4. Gluten free rules OK
Now, I have nothing whatsoever against gluten free foods. It is absolutely right, and vital, that Coeliacs are properly catered for and there is a huge market now in pre packed and fresh foods providing for this very important sector.
But it seems to me that ‘gluten free’ has become the easy fallback for ‘free from’. Supermarkets seem to think slapping ‘gluten free’ on a few packs of pasta and some bread covers the allergy issue. It doesn’t. As Saturday’s keynote speaker Dr Adam Fox pointed out, studies from Australia – which are among the most robust to date – suggest 80 per cent of food allergies in children relate to dairy, egg and nuts. Egg is in fact the most common, affecting more than 10 per cent of all kids, followed by peanut at around three per cent. And that’s just accounting for children. So why are these very serious, very prevalent allergies not catered for? A case in point – the M&S ‘free from’ stand had the following sign on prominent display:
It would be funny if it didn’t make me so furious. I could say exactly the same for all the big name supermarkets, who are equally culpable. There’s a whole blog post in me about this issue alone.
The same could be said for very many of the stands. There were some fine and good and dedicated small businesses trying desperately to offer the tastiest possible foods to a gluten free clientele. But more often than not the perky cupcakes and puddings either contained, or had the potential of traces of, nuts. Now I can’t blame the people making these foods but my point is that the organisers should surely have tried to ensure a balance in provision rather than whacking anything without gluten in and ignoring the rest. It was not the Coeliac and Gluten Free Show. The clue should surely be in the name.
(P.S. I might also add that gluten free does not necessarily signify suitable for wheat allergy sufferers: a great many of the foods were gluten free but contained wheat starch)
5. The appalling lack of understanding about cross contamination
One of my fellow Twitterers, the lovely Annie’s Supperclub – a gluten free underground eatery in Kent – pointed out to me yesterday that one of the stands offering curry had a choice: gluten free or normal bread. Yet they were using the same knife in the same butter pot for both.
Elsewhere, nutsome cookies were among the free samples being chopped up and handed out; egg-free cakes sat beside eggless varieties. And that’s before you even attempted to ask exhibitors about the presence of things like nuts in their foods. Some, I hasten to add, were very helpful and very knowledgeable. Others were an absolute disgrace: one woman insisted her cereals were nut free, and 100 per cent free from cross-contamination – until I checked the packaging and found a ‘traces’ warning.
I’m told this happens every year: another fellow Tweeter tells me she once found a milk free chocolate bar for her kids… with a ‘may contain milk’ warning on the label. So it was no surprise to me when I returned on Saturday to spy the following note on exhibitors’ tables:
6. The loose definition of ‘allergy’ and ‘free from’
Vegan does not constitute free from. ‘Free from’ is a term intended to define foods that are free from common allergens and intolerance-causing ingredients. Veganism is a lifestyle choice, not a medical necessity. Veggies, don’t shout at me: I’m a vegetarian. I am a vegetarian by choice. I am happy with my choice but if I accidentally ate a bit of cow I might very well flail about melodramatically but I don’t think I would die. I am also very well catered for, thank you, with the Vegetarian and Vegan Society labelling that exists almost everywhere these days. By all means pop up at a foodie market or a veggie fayre. But your nut and seed and soya-packed foods have no place at an allergy show.
Well, that’s got it out of my system, for now. I’m certainly not suggesting that organisers make the show an allergy free zone – patently that is impossible and impractical and unreal. But pursuing basic standards of care and guidance, providing adequate allergy friendly foods and excluding the free distribution of the most allergenic (i.e. nuts) might be a start.
Next up in a day or two: some of the good stuff about the show, including Dr Adam Fox’s very good keynote speech.