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.

Continue reading “Is it nuts to ban gluten? On changes to the allergy labelling laws”

Addendum, or, ‘I need a drink’

MAN, I SHOULD never blog in haste. After all my waxing lyrical about M&S, turns out their allergen labelling isn’t so perfect after all.

Off we trotted to buy some bread for a picnic tomorrow: after checking and cross referencing each of the egg free, nut free and sesame free lists on the M&S website I had settled on the ‘supersoft’ white as being our safe option.

Continue reading “Addendum, or, ‘I need a drink’”

O brave new world (and its pitfalls)

IMG_7084DAY ONE of our bold new world and a very proud little boy shows off his haul of goodies from M&S.

It’s astonishing what a difference losing just one allergy can make – previously I struggled to find anything worth buying in Marks & Spencer and couldn’t see why others raved about their allergen labelling. Gluten free foods contained eggs and everything else was plastered with nut and sesame warnings.

Now I can better appreciate the efforts they have gone to to cater for allergies: their website is explicit that anything featuring a ‘may contain’ label does so because of very real risks. And anything without a warning is manufactured in a controlled environment free from the dreaded allergen – so no need to triple check each item at every turn.

Continue reading “O brave new world (and its pitfalls)”

Just none Cornetto…

computer_says_noYOU might think that with the proliferation of ‘may contain nuts’ labels across our foodstuffs, people with allergies would find it easy to gather all the necessary info on what they can and cannot eat.

You’d be wrong. As a glimpse into the doublespeak-heavy world of trying to find out what’s safe and what’s not, here’s an excerpt from my dealings with Unilever’s customer “care” people…

I’ve been trying for weeks to find out which, if any, of their Walls brand ice creams might be safe and free from eggs, peanuts and tree nuts (and all traces thereof). My first call hit a dead-end when the woman on the other end assumed she knew more than I did and kept repeating the mantra “it’s UK law for us to declare if there are nut traces” (it’s not). I felt if she didn’t know the law then there was no way I’d trust her to reassure me on what might be safe for my child to eat.

So I asked for an email response and got a bundle of confusing lists stating which products contained nuts (no mention of eggs) and which didn’t, along with this:

Hello from Walls

Dear Alexa

Thank you for your recent telephone call requesting information on which Unilever UK and Ireland ice cream products nuts and tree nuts.

I have enclosed two lists which I hope you will find useful. This information has been provided in good faith using the most up-to-date information available at the date of going to print. Please note that the information is subject to change due to recipe amendments and therefore ALWAYS check the product label for the most accurate information.

Thank you for your interest in our products and please do not hesitate to contact me again if you have any further queries.

Kind regards,

Belinda Bekaraze
Careline Advisor

That’s a start, granted, but I wanted to know if it was Unilever company policy to state on the packaging if there ‘may’ be traces – and if there was no such warning could I be sure there was no risk of cross-contamination? What are the cleaning processes? Are eggs and nuts used on the same lines? Are the ‘safe’ ice creams made in nut free or egg free factories?

Despite my very best efforts I have received just one subsequent response from “Sophie Michels, careline advisor”. She sent the same lists again, along with a very nearly identical letter. May I direct you, also, to the third paragraph:

Hello from Walls

Dear Alexa,

Thank you for your recent email requesting information on which Unilever UK and Ireland Ice Cream products are produced in a nut free and egg free environment.

I have enclosed a list which I hope you will find useful, so you can compare the lists to see which products are suitable. This information has been provided in good faith using the most up-to-date information available at the date of going to print. Please note that the information is subject to change due to recipe amendments and therefore ALWAYS check the product label for the most accurate information.

The products on these lists CONTAIN Egg and Nut as an ingredient or traces of Egg due to cross contamination they will be produced in a nut/egg free environment.

Thank you for your interest in our products and please do not hesitate to contact me again if you have any further queries.

Kind regards,

Sophie Michels
Careline Advisor

Sorry if I’m being pedantic but when it’s my two-year-old’s life at risk I’m not prepared to take this as a resounding statement of safety.

I replied, suggesting that “Sophie” might like to re-read her email and re-send information that made sense. That was a month ago. Isn’t it ironic that Unilever sponsors allergy research when it can’t get its arse in gear to pass on the most basic information?

The perfect cheesecake (two ways)

IMG_4390YOU’LL BE hard pressed to find a shop or deli-bought cheesecake that doesn’t contain egg, let alone wheat or nuts. But it’s actually really simple to knock up an allergy-friendly alternative that tastes just as good… and maybe even better.

I first made this recipe, just before Sid was born, for my husband’s birthday. (I’m not a mental baker, but I was six months pregnant and we weren’t going out on the razzle so I decided a cake would be a substitute – albeit a poor one!). I’ve adapted it here for Sidney using Tru Free digestives, which are egg, nut, wheat and gluten free. Continue reading “The perfect cheesecake (two ways)”

‘Life with my allergic toddler’

SO TODAY I have a small piece in The Times’ Weekend supplement,Life With My Allergic Toddler’about the pain in the arseness of trying to shop, cook and cater for a food allergy tot when everything you try to buy ‘may contain’ this that and the other. (Here’s the link. It’s a shorter piece than originally intended but I’ll post the full and unabridged soon…)

Meanwhile, this morning I headed out to the supermarket to buy ingredients for a Sid-friendly cheesecake (recipe also to come). And instantly proved my point.

Sainsbury’s Organic double cream? “Not suitable for nut allergy sufferers”. Silver Spoon icing sugar? “May contain traces of egg.” Sainsbury’s ‘Free From’ digestive biscuits? “May contain nuts”. Three separate shops later and I think we finally have what we need. Minus the cheery disposition I may or may not have had when we started…

Finally – have your say (though it may change jack shit)

Almost a year ago now I wrote a post about looming changes to the laws on food allergy labelling.

New EU regulations set to come into effect in December 2014 state that allergen information should be extended to non-prepacked foods – that means that restaurants, delis, cafes etc will be made to comply.

The catch is, however, that it is up to each individual European country to decide exactly how to implement the proposals. And I for one am desperate to avoid the same mess we’re in with allergen labelling in shops: that is, the manufacturers slapping on ‘may contain’ warnings willy-nilly without ever getting to grips with the issues of cross-contamination and actually doing something practical and helpful about it. Continue reading “Finally – have your say (though it may change jack shit)”

Labelling labels doesn’t help, much

I SHALL share a very quick gripe, something that made me groan if not (this time) break down blubbing in the supermarket.

Browsing the shelves for some olives fit for Sid to eat (not easy, given the plethora of “nut” warnings) I came across Sainsbury’s Moroccan dry black ones. And the labelling was even less helpful than usual – largely because someone had seen fit to plaster over the allergy info box with another label, warning that the olives “may contain stones”:

They may contain nuts, too, I suppose, but who would know? (And, yes, I tried to peel the label off, but it ripped the paper beneath to shreds). *holds head in hands*

Allergy Show my $*@!

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.