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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Allergen Guidelines in the UK to Make Foods Safer

When I learned I was lactose intolerant (LI) in 1978, I had literally never heard the term before. That was just a few years after the notion that the vast majority of human beings on the planet were in fact LI hit the medical world like a grant-funding bombshell. In the 1970s doctors went to every corner of the earth to test native and ethnic populations, discovering high percentages of lactose intolerance everywhere except for northern Europe.

In the 1980s, products aimed at the lactose intolerant begin hitting store shelves in the U.S. Lactaid pills were the big breakthrough in 1984, although Lactaid powder and a few other small brands were there first. In the 1990s, Lactaid and Dairy Ease went head-to-head on television with multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, making lactose intolerance known to just about everybody.

In the U.S., that is. In the U.K. and much of the rest of Europe, the explosion never took place. No big ad campaigns combined with a much smaller percentage of the public who were genetically LI meant that the issue never quite gained any prominence.

And that also meant one other major distinction. The U.K. government never required changes in the labeling laws that forced food and drug manufacturers to list all potential cross-contamination factors, similar to the The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act that went into effect in the U.S. on January 1, 2006.

Georgina sent me an email from the U.K. in which she said:

One of the main problems I have found in the UK is you can get caught out very easily. They may be better in the US, but here the food industry is very bad at labelling foods. It is improving slowly but they seem to add lactose to almost everything and not put it on the ingredient, or they label it as sugar or whey, salt and vinegar crisps for instance and even the birth control pill. The information on your site is very interesting because when I asked my pharmacist for a lactose free pill they claimed there wasn’t one and on some pills, because it is not an active ingredient, it is just labelled as a filler!


The timing is great because there's news. The U.K.'s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has just issued a report, Guidance on Allergen Management and Consumer Information: Best Practice Guidance on Managing Food Allergens with Particular Reference to Avoiding Cross-Contamination and Using Appropriate Advisory Labels (e.g. "May Contain Labelling), a cheery 63 pages of bureaucratic lawyer-proof guidance.

FoodNavigator.com summarizes the report's import:
The allergen management and advisory labelling guidance, which is voluntary, uses examples of 'best practice' to help businesses of all sizes provide appropriate advisory labels that are clearer for consumers to understand.

It is also designed to help businesses assess the risk of cross-contamination with allergens.

"Up to 1.5 million people in the UK have food allergies, and it is vital that they are fully informed about the contents of the foods they are buying," said Sue Hattersley, head of the FSA's food allergy branch.

"Advisory labelling should only be used when, following a thorough risk assessment, there is a real risk of allergen cross-contamination. Excessive use of warning labels about the possible presence of allergens, can restrict consumer choice and devalue the impact of warning labels."

Indeed, the agency claims that a variety of warnings such as 'may contain nuts' are used so widely on pre-packed foods that many consumers are unable to assess the risks and simply ignore them. Unlike the situation for deliberately added ingredients, there are no statutory controls governing the labelling of the possible presence of allergens due to cross-contamination of foods along the supply chain.

These recommendations will take current regulations one step farther:
Allergen labelling regulations that came into force on 25 November require companies to label all pre-packed foods if they contain any of the 12 listed allergenic foods as an ingredient. The mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives covers cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soybeans, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.

As a result of these consumer concerns, the UK free-from food market, including dairy-, gluten- and wheat-free products, is set to double, according to market analyst Mintel. …

Meanwhile, dairy-free products are valued at £32 million, with sales of products such as soy milk and yoghurts growing by 28 per cent over the same three year period.

You can also take a look at the numbers I posted in April in "Free From" Foods Grow in Sales.

What are the practical implications of these regulations for consumers like Georgina? Mark Tyler and Jessica Burt wrote the following for Law-Now, CMS Cameron McKenna's free online information service. Registration is required for the full article.
The guidance also provides a useful breakdown of measures relating to "allergen free" claims. A positive claim (e.g. gluten free) is often regarding by consumers as meaning a guarantee of a complete absence; whereas usually this only means that samples of the food were shown to be below the analytical limit of detection for that allergen on one or more occasion. The FSA confirm that appropriate limits for a claim that a product is free from a particular allergen can be set. It is also stated that if manufacturers produce lists of foods free from particular allergens, these should be regularly reviewed and updated.

An example of the potential pitfalls of "allergen free" labelling may be found earlier this year in relation to the nutritional information providing by McDonalds on their french fries, which stated they were dairy, wheat and gluten free. This was amended, to much public outcry and threatened lawsuits, and then reversed after further testing. Food producers need to be aware that as soon as a positive assertion is made it is their responsibility to substantiate this claim, check that food complies with it and keep this under regular review; in particular in respect of changing suppliers, processes and testing methods.

The provision of an incorrect claim would open a food producer up to potential food safety and consumer protection litigation as well as potential damage to brand reputation. The making of an allergen free claim is therefore a commercial decision for each food producer based on an appropriately documented quality system. To this end, the guidance on allergen management and consumer information will be a useful practice to follow to illustrate best practice in due diligence.

While it appears that the lawyers will be arguing "best practice" for the foreseeable future, guidance such as this will make a significant difference for those with dairy allergy, among other allergies, and those who have problems with lactose. And with both the U.S. and U.K. moving in this direction, it wouldn't surprise me if the European Union were shortly to follow. Some bureaucracy really is good for everybody.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Steve
Guidelines are one way. We've found dressing our kids in fun cloths that help those around them know they have allergies is just if not more important. Thats why we started www.bluebearaware.com
Keep up the good work mate.
Kind Regards
Andrew