GO SHOPPING for food over the coming months and, if you’re a label-scrutiniser like me, you’ll notice some changes. Over time, those omnipresent allergy ‘contains’ boxes (see left) will be phased out. Instead, allergens will be listed in the ingredients only. Moreover, you won’t see the words ‘contains gluten’. The word gluten in this context will, from next year, be banned.
Why? It’s all part of an EU directive on food labelling that comes into effect in December 2014. Earlier this year the UK government conducted a public consultation on the way those changes should be implemented. Last month the Food Standards Agency issued its guidance on how the new rules will work.
Here are some of the main points, with my own ha’penny worth added in italics below. In short: I’m not convinced, and a brief, deeply unscientific straw poll on Twitter last night suggested many of my allergy peers aren’t either…
1. Allergens must be emphasised in the ingredients list. It is up to the manufacturer to decide how. So the words ‘milk’, for example, or ‘sesame’, might be written in bold, or in italics, or in a different colour, or underlined.
I’ve got a real issue with the looseness of this regulation. Manufacturers such as Cadbury’s have already introduced the new labels and they are nice and clear, as this pic from my Twitter pal @foodsyoucan shows:
They’ve decided to highlight the allergens in bright yellow, against the rest of the ingredients in white. That’s OK. Scouring an ingredients list for words picked out in italics, on the other hand, will not be such an easy task.
2. The extra ‘contains nuts/eggs/wheat etc’ label that, until now, has sat alongside the ingredients list to flag up the allergens will no longer be permitted.
Why? Surely having the allergen clearly listed in the ingredients ALONGSIDE an allergen warning box is the most failsafe option?
3. Fourteen major allergens will be included in these new guidelines. They are:
Gluten-containing cereals such as wheat or rye
Crustaceans, eg crab, prawns, lobster
Treenuts (eg macadamia, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans)
Sulphur dioxide or sulphites (a preservative that can be allergenic)
Lupin (a plant related to the peanut family)
Molluscs (eg clams, mussels, whelks, snails)
4. ‘May contain’ labels – the bane of allergic consumers’ lives – remain voluntary. So if a product runs the risk of being contaminated by nuts processed on the same site, it’s up to the brand to decide whether and how to display that warning.
Why have they not addressed these blasted ‘may contain’ warnings? There are so many different wordings, from ‘may contain nuts’, to ‘made in a factory where nuts are processed’, to ‘not suitable for nut allergy suffers due to the manufacturing methods used’. Why not standardise these statements and make them compulsory? Compel manufacturers to declare precisely whether allergens have been processed on the same lines, or in the same factory, or whether they are not manufactured on-site but may be eaten in the staff canteen. Having all the information clearly available would allow us to make educated and informed decisions. One of my preferred label statements, though it seemed obtuse when I first came across it, is this:
The law states that manufacturers cannot declare a food to be ‘nut free’ if they haven’t traced every step of every ingredient from field to farm to factory. In other words, they can’t promise that the wheat used in their biscuits didn’t once brush past a peanut blown in the wind on to the field in which it grew. Frankly, it means I can take a calculated risk and decide that the likelihood of cross contamination is ludicrously low. I’ve got all the info I need: it’s explicit, and it allows me to make an informed choice.
5. The use of the term ‘contains gluten’ in the ingredients will be outlawed. Instead, Coeliacs and those who are gluten intolerant will have to look for the relevant gluten-containing cereals (e.g. rye, wheat, oats, barley) in the ingredients list instead.
Why ban ‘gluten’ as a description? This poses a big problem for those who rely on others to do their shopping or catering for them. It’s confusing enough for us allergy obsessives to know what to look out for – how will someone NOT personally affected by allergies know to check for barley in an ingredients list if they are cooking for a Coeliac, for instance? Minefield. And really odd.
6. Manufacturers will have a certain amount of choice in how they list allergens. So the word ‘cream’ will have to be highlighted as it is a milk-based product but the word ‘milk’ will not necessarily have to be used.
Why not? Why not make it compulsory to write ‘cream from milk’? The point of these guidelines was to standardise labelling but it seems to me that there remain countless opt-outs and grey areas.
7. Allergy information will have to be provided by restaurants, delis, cafes and supermarkets for the foods they sell without packaging or wrapped on site. This information, however, will be offered in a number of ways depending on the retailer’s fancy. They might provide the info on a chalk board, a chart or even verbally. This rule does not cover cross-contamination, only the deliberate inclusion of allergens as specific ingredients.
Letting food outlets verbally provide allergen information scares me – in fact, it’s an issue I singled out in my own submission to the public consultation. Relying on the word of a passing waitress is a big no-no for food allergic consumers. The advice is always to seek a conversation with a manager and/or the chef. Chinese whispers can be deadly. So why allow the potential for error in verbal communication? Why not just make it compulsory for outlets to display allergen ingredients in writing? I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories, like the waiter who didn’t realise that praline was nuts so assured a diner his meal was nut free, or the office canteen staff who insisted a vegetable lasagne was ‘gluten free’ when what they meant to say was, er, ‘vegetarian’.
As I said before, I don’t think I’m alone in being wary of these changes. To some degree all of this will seem confusing until we’re dealing with the new labels day-to-day, but early indications, from my point of view, aren’t brilliant. Some people have suggested lobbying local MPs on the shortfalls of the new legislation.
What do you think?