Is it nuts to ban gluten? On changes to the allergy labelling laws

getty_rm_photo_of_nut_allergy_warning_label 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:

BTzvxBPIQAAlGI4.jpg-large

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

Eggs

Milk

Soy

Peanuts

Treenuts (eg macadamia, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans)

Celery

Mustard

Sesame

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:

may-contain1-1

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?

See the Food Standards Agency guidelines here, and my previous blogs on the issue here and here. @gfdining has also just blogged on the subject here.

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17 thoughts on “Is it nuts to ban gluten? On changes to the allergy labelling laws

  1. CB

    This is a timely post for me- I have just sent an email to Tesco questioning the removal of the ‘factory/recipe/ingredients’ labelling on some of their products. On a particular pack of sliced ham that I ususally buy, this has been replaced by ‘may contain nuts’. This makes me so cross – the previous wording implies, as you say, the lowest possible level of risk, where the new warning gives me no clue at all about the likelihood of nut contamination and prevents me from buying a product that is, in all likelihood perfectly fine. It looks as though a return to vague back-covering is where we are heading, (although the only places I will now be heading are Sainsburys and M&S!)

  2. CB Tesco have always been really bad with their nut labelling.
    I agree, it is slightly easier for people with poorer eye sight to look for allergy info clearly marked on a packet, this bold or italics when the list of ingredients is usually minute is just not good enough.
    I agree that I dont think people who dont live/breath/eat allergies can understand the potential of a person eating a bag of salted nuts in the canteen for their lunch and then going back to a factory floor.
    I queried with a well known crisp brand the other week who brought out a new product as their bag of chicken flavour were not marked as containing gluten, yet their website mentioned it as an allergen, yes like most I do double check new products, and was told it did not need to be labelled, they are using the new labelling already. It is a huge step backwards in my book.
    Great post, thanks for writing it, wish I had been on twitter last night to read what was going on.

  3. Great post, so informative. May safe me from reading it personally. Makes me really sad to read though. I put great hopes in the new regulations, but it seems it is not worth the paper it is written on. Who benefits from the new standard? I fear neither the catering industry nor their customers. So who does?
    Thanks for sharing this and putting your time and effort into the research.

  4. MarieJW12

    Thanks for the post, as allergybabe says, it makes very sad reading.
    Looks like my grocery shopping is going to take a whole lot longer now. Absent allergy boxes means scrutinising the entire ingredients list, cannot believe that it’s removal is deemed as being an improvement. We have to read a list now of ingredients that aren’t even in alphabetical order, trying to spot our problem allergens.
    I already worry for my two nut allergic teenagers now that they are starting to make their own food choices, I have always stressed to them to check, double check the allergen advice boxes. Now that these boxes are disappearing I am even more worried that they may not be quite as vigilant as me in spotting their allergens from a long list.
    Regarding the “may contain nuts”, this if far too loose a description. I want to know why my food contains nuts and which nuts might they contain. Feel that we will have even less choice now with the new labelling as I would buy food made in a nut free factory if stated on packaging. Now manufacturers only have to put “may contain” with no explanation.
    New food labelling is a BIG step backwards. Allergy sufferers have it hard enough as it is, it’s going to be a whole lot harder now.

  5. I have to be honest – i quite like the idea of all the allergy information in one place (ie the ingredients list) – but then I don’t have food hypersensitivity. I have to say too, I’d be surprised if ‘gluten’ was banned from appearing in ingredients (what if gluten is actually added as an ingredient, as opposed to wheat?) and I do know ‘may contain’ is being looked at – well, allergen thresholds for allergens other than gluten are being looked at – which will hopefully address the ‘may contain’ issue …. More to come, no doubt …

    1. Thanks everyone so much for your comments so far… Such good points about children and teens – an allergen box seems so much bolder than a few highlighted words in an ingredients list. To be fair, it does make sense in theory to have all the info in one place, as Alex points out – but the big worry is that not all manufacturers will make their packaging as clear as Cadbury’s, since there is nothing in this new legislation to compel them to do so. What about huge, long, complex ingredients lists where allergens are simply picked out in italics or underlined? And we all know how hard it is to get children to pay attention!

      It occurs to me too that if the idea is to make the consumer take note of the ingredients list it’s like preaching to the converted. Those of us dealing with food allergies every single day do nothing BUT scour packaging. Who is this intended to benefit?

      Also, I have no idea Alex whether gluten will be listed as an ingredients but it seems not to be obligatory at the very least – which leads me back to the issue of other people shopping or catering for Coeliacs and the gluten intolerant. If some people don’t know spelt is wheat, as Alex pointed out this morning on Twitter, then what extra information will be available on the label to emphasise this point? How many people know barley and rye are gluten containing?

      A lot of this will be suck it and see but if there DO turn out to he serious issues, will it then be too late to fix them?

  6. Pingback: Update: allergy labelling laws | yesnobananas

  7. Thanks for such a wonderfully articulate post Alexa (much more so than mine, written at God-knows-what-time last night!) and thanks for the link back to the blog! Completely agree re: the minefield of non-allergy sufferers having to identify gluten-containing ingredients when cooking for gluten-free friends and family. My friends and family have only just got used to identifying the “contains gluten” box when they’re cooking for me! Someone also made a similar comment to Marie’s above on my @gfdining post – this is going to make it a lot more difficult for young kids to identify which foods are safe for them to eat when they aren’t with a parent (school trips, etc). Very concerning. I just can’t get my head around the fact that allergy boxes are “no longer permitted” – surely the more prominent the warning, the better. Why not just make “contains” warnings compulsory for each of the 14 allergens? Surely that’s a far less complex way of going about things (and a safer one) as it leaves absolutely no room for doubt. This all just seems unnecessarily complicated… Looking forward to reading more as more people join the debate. Alice.

    1. Totally agree cannot for the life of me ( or more pertinently the life of my highly allergic child) see why the boxes are not to be permitted. They really do make life much, much easier. Who had the bright idea to get rid of them and whet made them think this was an ‘improvement’ for people with allergies?

  8. Pingback: Gluten-free news: updated advice on food allergen labelling from the Food Standards Agency | The Gluten-Free Dining Guide

  9. Elizabeth Price

    What a scary and worrying read! Very informative, thank you! Bad enough scrutinising and second guessing labels at the moment and it sounds like its only going to get worse! Will definitely make it more difficult for people who don’t know exactly what they are looking for eg friends or family who invite a coeliac round to dinner! Would definitely be up for writing to MP etc about it.

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  11. I do not understand how highlighting every allergen in the list will make it easier. We do not have to worry about wheat or gluten any more but do have to worry about milk, eggs, nuts. Gluten is found in many items and is not listed specifically, milk can be present in a number of guises. How can friends and family or children all be expected to realise that the unfamiliar word highlighted in the list applies to the allergen being avoided rather than one of the other allergens? I have before now seen milk listed in a box, read the ingredients list and not actually found anything in that list which seems to be derived from milk. (Never bought these items). Will each highlighted item say what the allergen is- I think not. The more I find out about this change in policy the less I think it is an improvement in any way whatsoever.

  12. Thanks for this great analysis of the new labelling laws Alexa. I have personally always found the allergy box extremely useful as a quick check, and would read the ingredients to be on the safe side if all looked OK. At least if I saw “contains gluten” in the allergy box it would save me reading through the full list. It seems such a backward step to me, though the Cadbury’s example does look clear. I agree with all your comment, and as you quite rightly say if everyone was forced to standard that Cadbury have used then we would not have so much of an issue.

  13. Pingback: An Email to the Food Standards Agency | yesnobananas

  14. Pingback: Food labels: may contain ‘may contain’; may not contain ‘does contain’ | Allergy Insight

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