FOLLOWING MY blog posts on the issue and countless angry Tweets the FSA has asked me to email my concerns about the new food labelling legislation to them directly. So I have. The letter’s below.
I feel very strongly about this and am considering launching a petition to have this legislation amended. If you have concerns, too, please let the FSA know (email at the bottom of this post).
Having posted two blogs about my concerns regarding the impending changes to food allergen labelling I have been asked to email you both directly.
The new guidance released by the Food Standards Agency and the follow-up blog from Sue Hattersley, the FSA Head of Allergy Branch, have prompted something of an outcry among the allergy community on Twitter, as I am sure you are aware.
I feel very strongly indeed that many of these changes will be counter-productive and create more problems and potentially more dangerous situations. They make life more – not less – difficult for those of us tackling serious food allergies.
I am very sorry to say that Sue Hattersley’s blog does not “address” any of these concerns, as the FSA has claimed. In fact, she only repeats the FSA’s current position – the equivalent, as far as I am concerned, of speaking very s-l-o-w-l-y and LOUDLY to someone who doesn’t speak English. In short, assuming we are stupid and haven’t understood the changes, without making any effort to respond directly to our worries. We understand the changes, and we have very serious problems with them.
I also want to know whose opinion has been steering these changes: I took part in the public consultation but my concerns were not taken into account. Anyone who lives with real and life-threatening allergy day in, day out can see the fatal flaws in many of the new regulations.
Here are the main issues:
1. The banning of the allergen ‘contains’ boxes.
In theory it would seem to make sense to keep all allergen info in one place, namely the ingredients list. In practice, if you had ever conducted a weekly shop while tackling multiple food allergies you would know that the ‘contains allergen’ box acts as a very helpful shorthand. If the allergen we are trying to avoid is cited there, we put the packet back on the shelf and move on – no need to scour the ingredients list.
The argument that the ‘contains allergen’ boxes have never been compulsory is not a valid argument – so, make them compulsory would be my response to that.
The argument that there have been errors in the allergen box in the past is also fundamentally flawed. There might also, in that case, be errors in the ingredients list. At least when there is an allergen box AND an ingredients list on the label, there is a ‘safety net’ of sorts in that one of them might at least be correct.
The assumption behind the new legislation seems to be that consumers are potentially being ‘slack’ and only looking at the ‘contains allergen’ box and not then going on to check the ingredients list. If you had a severely food allergic child or were struggling with life threatening allergies yourself you would know how seriously we as consumers take labelling. I have NEVER glanced at an allergen box, thought ‘it doesn’t contain nuts’ and not then gone on to check the ingredients. In fact, every single person I know in my situation checks every single label three times, if not more. The weekly shop already takes three times as long as it used to, pre allergies. The new legislation will make this even more onerous.
I would like to quote one parent of food allergic teenagers, ‘MarieJ12’, who has posted the following very succinct comment on my blog (note her very real concerns for her children and their ability to properly check the labels):
“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 its 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.”
Ditto the following comment from Alice of The Gluten Free Dining Guide:
“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)… 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.”
2. There is no standardisation in the way manufacturers must display allergens within the ingredients list.
The British Retail Consortium does not specify one single method of doing so. Therefore while some companies may ‘bold’ the allergens, others may italicise, or underline, or use a different colour. This adds confusion, and will make some ingredients lists very difficult to read. It may work in principle if a food product has maybe five or six ingredients. When we are having to navigate a list of 15, 20 or even more along with smaller font size this will become a nightmare. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem that consumers with sight issues, colour blindness etc have been taken into account at all. See this blog for more on this issue: http://theri14.wordpress.com/2013/09/14/vision-and-food-labelling/
3. The word ‘gluten’ is being banned from ingredients lists and allergen warnings.
Why? Again, this is a very helpful shorthand for consumers who have to navigate labels every single day of their lives. I certainly know many people who do not realise that barley, for instance, or rye are gluten containing cereals.
The banning of the ‘contains gluten’ AND the banning of the ‘contains allergen’ box pose huge, potentially dangerous issues when other people are shopping for or catering for food allergic people. My own parents, for instance, who sometimes cook for my three-year-old son but do not have to check labels every day of their lives; carers who shop for the elderly, the blind, the disabled; friends who might be cooking a meal for a food allergic child.
4. Manufacturers will have a certain amount of choice in how they list allergens.
For instance, they will not be compelled to write ‘milk’ when listing ‘cream’, although they can if they wish. This makes scanning ingredients lists for allergens even more onerous and fraught with the potential for error.
5. Allowing food outlets to ‘verbally’ inform customers of the allergens in their foods.
This is dangerous, pure and simple. Why not make it the law to provide this information in written format? It would allow the information to be double checked, minimising the potential for error.
Anecdotally I am aware of serving staff who did not realise ‘praline’ is nuts and served them to a nut allergic customer; staff who got mixed up between ‘gluten free’ and ‘vegetarian’ and insisted a vegetarian lasagne was gluten free (it wasn’t).
Insisting that local authority enforcement officers can check that information is correct – as Sue Hattersley claims – is of no help whatsoever to those of us attempting to buy and consume food on a daily basis. Those officers will only be called in when there is a problem and something has happened or is suspected. I assume I can’t call up my local enforcement officer and ask him or her to pop down and check the info I’ve been given is correct, when I’m trying to buy a sandwich for my child on a day trip?
Further, I’m afraid I have very little faith in these officers’ understanding of food allergy. I am aware of one who told an allergy friendly food producer friend of mine that she was “too cautious” in relation to cross contamination. A statement that fills my heart with dread. Frankly, this aspect of the legislation is downright dangerous and frightening. I will feel no safer buying food from a deli, cafe or restaurant than I do now – namely not safe at all.
6. The abject failure to address allergic consumers’ major complaint – the use and abuse of ‘may contains’ labels.
Why have these not been made compulsory? I think the best summation of this is from Michelle Berriedale-Johnson of Foods Matter and the Free From Food Awards in her post here http://www.foodsmatter.com/blog/the-new-allergen-regulations-a-wasted-opportunity/ :
“However the worst failure of the regulations – and one which is totally unforgivable given the amount of discussion that has gone on over the years – is that the regulators have made no attempt at all to address the ‘may contain’ defensive labelling situation – the biggest bugbear of any allergic shopper.
These regulations were an ideal opportunity to standardise reasonable warnings (contains x; made in a factory where x is also used; cannot guarantee that ingredients are x free, etc) that would allow allergic consumers to assess the level of risk posed by a product and make an informed decision as to whether they would take that risk.
If more detailed and informative information about the level of risk had also been made compulsory, and thereby, universal, shopping for those with allergies would not only have become much easier, but very much safer. As it is, they are no better off now than they have been for the last 30 years.”
For more on the opposition to this legislation see my own blog posts: https://yesnobananas.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/is-it-nuts-to-ban-gluten-on-changes-to-the-allergy-labelling-laws/ and https://yesnobananas.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/update-allergy-labelling-laws/
Also these from other gluten free and allergic bloggers: The Gluten-free Dining Guide http://ht.ly/oKGLU ; Foods Matter http://www.foodsmatter.com/blog/the-new-allergen-regulations-a-wasted-opportunity/ ; Allergy Adventures http://allergyadventures.com/our-blog/2013-sept/changes-in-food-allergy-labelling-heres-what-you-need-to-know.aspx ; Sugarpuffish http://sugarpuffish.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/new-rules-for-allergen-labelling-on-food.html?spref=tw
I would appreciate a full and detailed response to this. There are a great many of us prepared now to lobby our MPs and to stand up and campaign long and hard against these changes as they stand. A huge opportunity has been wasted. I now fear for the future of allergen labelling as my child grows up trying to navigate a difficult and potentially dangerous world.
Email the FSA your concerns via firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s also worth emailing the Anaphylaxis Campaign as they may be able to lobby on our behalf – email@example.com