Is no reason good reason? More on allergy labelling

Allergy labelling: make it clear

SO, THE ANAPHYLAXIS Campaign has sent a speedy and detailed response to my email – big thanks to them. Still waiting for the FSA, mind.

Anyway, the Campaign has outlined the reasons for the labelling changes we’re so het up about and it looks like the issues causing most concern (removal of the ‘contains allergen’ box, not standardising the way allergens are highlighted in the ingredients list and the banning of the word ‘gluten’) are actually by-products of the legislation.

In other words, they came about because the legislation is concerned with many labelling issues (including nutrition, country of origin and date marking), and no-one gave much thought to the impact the clauses would have on allergy information.

Actually, the Anaphylaxis Campaign agrees that some of the changes came as a ‘surprise’ AFTER the legislation was finalised, which makes me ask whether we have a case to argue that the full implications were never properly explained to our representative organisations. Is this just cause for amendment under European law?

The fact that there are no good allergy-related reasons for making some of these changes makes me even more hopping mad than I was before. That’s a herd of furious kangaroos.

I’ve copied the Anaphylaxis Campaign response in full at the bottom of this post but here are the main points in summary:

1. ‘Contains allergen’ boxes are not included under the new laws chiefly because this is EU-wide legislation, these boxes did not exist in most other EU countries and it was not considered an issue elsewhere. BUT the fact that the use of these boxes is now actively banned only became apparent after the legislation was finalised and came as a “surprise” to many (the reason for the ban is the duplication of information on a label is illegal).

It seems to me that, if this ‘side effect’ of the legislation was not clear until it had been finalised then we have cause to oppose it and seek amendment. But I am no EU law expert so I’ve asked the Anaphylaxis Campaign for clarification on whether we have a case here. If anyone else can shed light I’d be grateful.

I would also argue very strongly that the UK has among the best (albeit far from perfect) allergen labelling practices in Europe and we are now being brought down to the lowest common denominator rather than bringing the rest of Europe up to standard. ALL of Europe should be required to use ‘contains allergen’ boxes.

2. The decision not to issue set guidelines on how allergens are highlighted within an ingredients list came from the fact that many companies already embolden compound ingredients (e.g. the ingredients within a ‘tomato sauce’ in a lasagne). But the Anaphylaxis Campaign agrees that this could be “very confusing” for consumers.

This remains a real and significant problem. I would like to know if there is any room for manoeuvre here – I think this aspect of the legislation needs amending.

3. The legislation specifically states that ‘cereals’ containing gluten must be listed, hence why ‘wheat’, ‘rye’, ‘barley’ etc and not gluten must be named.

Again, this seems not to have been thought through in relation to allergic/Coeliac consumers and it appears to be a worrying by-product of the legislation’s wording – i.e. there is no good reason for it.

4. The Anaphylaxis Campaign notes that being able to ‘choose’ how to name allergenic ingredients already exists in law – for example, when using ‘milk’ a manufacturer does not have to specify which type of milk (e.g. from goat, cow, buffalo) and certain well-known dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese, cream do not have to stress milk’s inclusion. The use of the word ‘milk’ only applies when the dairy product is less well known (e.g. Quark, fromage frais).

We don’t have dairy issues so I’m no expert but I would like to know if this extract from the current FSA guidance explaining why different types of milk do not have to be specified is correct: “If someone has an allergy or intolerance to cows’ milk, they are likely to be allergic or intolerant to other mammalian milk”. Anyone?

5. The Anaphylaxis Campaign stands by the decision to allow food outlets to verbally inform customers of allergens because it believes it would be too onerous for the owners of small cafes and snack bars, who change recipes and menus frequently, to write all ingredients down.

I disagree – how hard it is to write down the ingredients of a new cake or dish? Is it not easier than expecting the staff to remember and pass on the information correctly? I still think this aspect of the law is dangerous and leaves allergic consumers in no better position than they were before.

6. The new legislation allows for the future implementation of ‘may contain’ regulations. The Anaphylaxis Campaign believes it would be safer to wait until threshold levels have been established EU wide (there is research ongoing into what threshold levels of contamination would pose a health issue for allergic individuals).

I often find myself up against this argument and I agree that threshold research is hugely important. But, for now, we need standardised, simple and clear information on contamination risks. All this means is requiring companies to state on the label whether the food is produced on the same line as a major allergen, in the same factory but on a different line, or in a factory where certain allergens are not used. It would allow us as consumers to make educated risk assessments on what we choose to buy and eat.

IMG_7427

As an example, I recently bought a packet of plain breadsticks (above), which contained no allergy warnings and whose ingredients were wheat, olive oil, salt and yeast. But, knowing that the ‘may contains’ labels are not compulsory, before giving any to Sidney I decided to ring the company, Organico, and check.

They were very accommodating and rang the supplier. The response? The grissini were made on the same lines as sesame products so they would advise not to eat them. If they had been required by law to state this on the packet it would (a) ensure no-one suffering from a severe sesame allergy ate them unwittingly (b) save me the time, effort and headf*** of ringing manufacturers every bloody time I find something new. And not every company bothers to check, so usually I am left chasing the information for weeks.

Rant over. I would love to know your thoughts on this latest twist in the allergy labelling furore. Are you happy with the “reasons” behind the changes? Here’s the Anaphylaxis Campaign letter in full:

Hi Alexa,

Thanks for your email. The Anaphylaxis Campaign was part of the consultation process prior to the legislation being implemented and we gave our comments along with all other stakeholders.

My comments relate primarily to our understanding of the reasonsbehind the legislation being as it is.

1 The banning of “contains” boxes

I think one of the main problems with this issue is that this is a European legislation and the views of very many stakeholders from all European countries were consulted as part of the process.

With regards to Allergen boxes, the fact is that these are not used in most European countries, so their removal was not something that was considered an issue other than in the UK. The reason given for removing them was that the original wording of the legislation made the duplication of information on packaging illegal; allergens could not, legally, be listed in more than one place.

This was something that only became apparent after the legislation had been finalised and was a surprise to most people, including our organisation.

The new signposting boxes (“for allergen information, including cereals containing gluten…”) may very well be a temporary measure until consumers in the UK become accustomed to the removal of the allergen boxes.

There was concern that just removing the boxes without any explanation may have led consumers unfamiliar with the new legislation to assume that no allergens were present in the product as in spite of advice to the contrary we know that many people shopping for food-allergic individuals use the boxes as a short cut and do not check the ingredients.

2 – Lack of standardisation.

This issue was certainly flagged up as a concern in discussions about the regulation. One of the reasons given for the flexibility allowed, was that many food companies already use some type of highlighting for other aspects of labelling.

For example, many food company already embolden compound ingredients (i.e. an ingredient of a food that is itself composed of a number of constituent ingredients, such as a sauce in a lasagna). I agree that lack of standardisation could be very confusing.

3 – Gluten labelling

As far as I’m aware this is due to the actual wording of the legislation that requires “cereals containing gluten” rather than the gluten itself to be listed in the ingredients. So the requirement is for the name of the cereal to be listed and not the fact that it contains gluten.

This is why the new signposting box will mention, if relevant, that “for cereals containing gluten see the ingredients”.

4 – Choice in how to list allergens

This is already the case with regards to the labelling of milk. The following is from the FSA’S “Guidance on Allergen and Miscellaneous Labelling Provisions March 2011

“The rules do not name any species of milk, because “milk” includes milk from sheep, goats, and buffalo etc. It should be noted that all mammalian milk proteins have a similar structure and if someone has an allergy or intolerance to cows’ milk, they are likely to be allergic or intolerant to other mammalian milk.

Under general food labelling rules, dairy products (cheese, butter, fermented milk and cream) do not have to have an ingredients list in certain circumstances. In order to ensure that consumers still receive the information they need to clearly identify the presence of milk in such cases, the following advice may be applied.

The use of sales names such as “cheese”, “butter”, “cream” and “yoghurt” is considered to refer clearly to the milk base of these products. In such cases, further reference to “milk” may not be necessary. However, the labelling should make a clear reference to milk in the case of unfamiliar dairy products used as ingredients (e.g. fromage frais, Mascarpone, Cantal, Quark) or products being sold under a name which does not clearly refer to milk, in non-transparent packaging on a non-dairy shelf.

In addition, components derived from milk, such as casein and whey, should be declared with reference to milk.”

5 – Allowing food outlets to ‘verbally’ inform customers of the allergens in their foods.

Having printed ingredients for foods sold loose can work well in larger establishments such as restaurant chains where recipes vary little from one week to the next, but would be impractical and potentially very dangerous is smaller restaurants and snack bars where chefs may change their recipes, ingredients and suppliers on a regular basis.

6 – “May contain” labels The new Regulation has in fact allowed for the adoption of implementing acts relating to the possible and unintentional presence in food of substances or products causing allergies (i.e. “may contain” labelling:

CHAPTER V VOLUNTARY FOOD INFORMATION Article 36. 3.

The Commission shall adopt implementing acts on the application of the requirements referred to in paragraph 2 of this Article to the following voluntary food information: (a) information on the possible and unintentional presence in food of substances or products causing allergies or intolerances.

The Campaign has reservations regarding the mandatory use of precautionary labelling unless such a rule is accompanied by a strict requirement for this to be a last resort following a robust risk assessment along the food supply chain. This could only effectively be achieved once threshold levels for food allergens have been agreed at European level. Without this stipulation, the result would be further excessive and unnecessary precautionary labelling.

Anaphylaxis Campaign 1 Alexandra Road Farnborough Hampshire, GU14 6BU Direct Line: 01252 893854 Helpline: 01252 542029 Website: www.anaphylaxis.org.uk

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9 thoughts on “Is no reason good reason? More on allergy labelling

  1. We do deal with severe milk allergy and were strongly advised by the doctor to avoid all other types of milk. I Learnt something from your blog though, in spite of considering myself ‘very up’ on milk ingredients I did not know that Chantal and Quark were milk! Not looking forward to rules coming into play. They really are a retrograde step for UK consumers.

  2. Alex I love this blog post. You have clearly and thoughtfully made some great points. There is one that I’d like to add:

    Although I know the official line is that if you have a cow’s milk protein allergy/intolerance you should avoid goats and sheep milk, I have a bit of an issue with these not being listed separately on an ingredients list. This is because two boys known to me who were allergic to cow’s milk (they appear to have outgrown this now), were brought up on goat’s milk, by their mother, a nurse. She did a lot of research and discovered that other parts of the world DO commonly use goat’s milk instead and decided to take the risk. For her it paid off.

    My mother is another example. Born during WWII she was brought up on a small-holding by her grandparents. When she proved allergic to cow’s milk (it brought on very bad eczema) they bought a goat and she had goat’s milk instead. My niece was the same. Now although I am reluctant to try goat’s milk on my own LO as I do not like seeing my child suffer (she is not anaphylactic, but the slightest trace of cow’s milk gives her tummy aches and diarrhea the next day), I don’t think this ability by some to tolerate other milks should be overlooked. To do so, means limiting their diet unnecessarily.

    I have to say, cow’s milk being used so widely in so many products (including chicken gravy) I would presume, that if I saw ‘milk’ on a label that it was cow’s milk that had been used. If not cow’s milk, I would expect it to be specified in some way. That just seems logical, I’m amazed that the EU think otherwise!

  3. I’ve confused Quark (milk) and Quorn (fungus) before, Theri14!

    Great work here, Alexa. Am currently exchanging various emails with FSA regarding labelling of gluten, and it seems the word ‘gluten’ isn’t being banned from ingredients lists, but will be optional (unless gluten itself is the ingredient – as opposed to an ingredient with gluten in it – in which case it will of course need to be listed). Assuming this, terms like “wheat flour (gluten)” would be acceptable. But this to my mind would make the section in the FSA guidance leaflet titled ‘No more references to gluten’ misleading … so not 100% confident in it all.

    I shall blog when I’ve understood it … We’ll get there.

  4. MarieJW12

    Thanks for another enlightening blog. There still seem to be many grey areas with the new labelling. You’re right though, it looks like our current allergy labelling is being compromised to fall in line with the rest of Europe. What a shame that the FSA is allowing this to happen. I am very concerned for all allergy sufferers.

  5. Elizabeth Price

    Worrying stuff, I am planning on writing to FSA this weekend. Would you mind if I shared the link to your blog on my blog? Let’s get as much support as possible!

      1. Elizabeth Price

        Great, will put a link in my blog this weekend. Yes, I sent a short email to FSA and copied it to my MP. I am awaiting a reply from both at the moment!! Happy for you to see the letter, will try and copy it into one of these comment boxes!?

  6. great post, very informative. thanks for all your hard research! great work for allergy community. very frustrating that small businesses do not have to have their ingredients listed. Yes, they may change their menu frequently. Even more so wants the customer to have accurate info about ingredients. How can an oral info be more reliable than a written one? And, why should it be harder to write down the list once than being asked 10 times a day about different ingredients in different dishes. IMPOV, no logic behind… . Sad.

  7. Elizabeth Price

    Copying my letter to FSA below…..

    I am writing to air my concerns regarding the proposed changes to allergy labelling next year.

    I have Coeliac Disease which means I cannot eat wheat or gluten and I also have a nut allergy. Therefore, I am heavily reliant on the way allergy information is labelled on the foods I eat. Over the years I have become quite good at checking the ingredients on food packaging but I always find the quick reference allergy boxes most useful.

    I think what is most concerning for people with food allergies / intolerances is that the new labelling system will make it much more difficult for friends and family to buy food for us. For example, I know that oats, barley, rye etc etc all contain gluten but do my family and friends who may cook for me at times know that? I have to know about my condition, I have to know what I can and can’t eat but I cannot expect my friends and family to know the ins and outs of everything I can and cannot eat. They have all become very good at checking the allergen boxes and they know that if it says “contains / may contain gluten” then they avoid it. Why are we making it more difficult for them? I also find the allergen boxes are a very good quick reference for me while I am doing my shopping. Do you know how long it takes to check every ingredient?

    The suggested changes will make life even more complicated not to mention shopping more time consuming and onerous. The changes are also potentially life threatening as it opens the way for more mistakes to be made. Many people are rightly worried about this and are expressing their concerns via Twitter, blogging and emailing the FSA.

    I look forward to hearing your response and I will also be copying this email to my local MP.

    Yours faithfully,

    ……..possibly not as articulate as I would have liked but the best I could manage on a Sunday eve!! Will let you know if I get a reply!

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