Companies spend a fortune on ‘public relations’ so how do they so often get it wrong? They employ specialist PR agencies, set up focus groups ‘to gauge public feeling’, recruit dedicated teams to run their Twitter accounts and their Facebook pages, and yet the gaffes continue. You would have thought that after the recent furore over Alpro’s decision to use defensive ‘may contain nut’ warnings on their products other industry players would have been treading softly but, no – in go Tesco, in their hob-nailed boots, straight into the same quagmire….
Now as it happens – Tesco do have a problem in terms of their allergen labelling. In the good old, bad old days, they tried hard on the subject of contamination warnings, stating whether there were nuts (for example) in the recipes, whether the product had been made in a factory where nuts were used and/or whether they could guarantee that the ingredients were nut free. This was far from a perfect system but many of us thought that it was useful information for the allergic consumer and allowed them to make a more informed choice. However, this was a Tesco labelling format and was not used by other manufacturers or other supermarkets – nor was there ever any chance of getting all of the UK food industry, let alone the whole of the EU food industry, to agree on some similar format.
Therefore, in their revision of the allergen labelling regulations, the good burghers of Brussels (sorry…. EFSA – the European Food Safety Authority) decided that, rather than allowing such advice to proliferate and thereby confuse consumers, they should aim for simplicity and ban the lot! They, of course, have in mind their looming ‘action levels’. These are the result of ten years of Europe-wide research which is going, they hope, to allow them to set ‘thresholds’ (how much an allergic person can consume of their allergen without having a reaction) for most major allergens including nuts. At that point ‘may contain’ warnings become irrelevant as each food can be tested and, if it logs in a below the level it is safe, and if it does not, it is not safe. But we do not yet have these ‘action levels’ – and realistically we are not likely to have them as a usable tool for another five years. So for now, by banning all attempts to assess the level of contamination risk in the manufacture of a food product, EFSA have put us back ten years to the point where the only option a manufacturer has, if there is a genuine risk of nut (dairy, sesame, gluten etc etc) contamination, is to add a ‘may contain’ warning.
Of course, the crucial word here is ‘genuine’ but the Brussels authorities give no guidance on what a genuine risk may be. The Food Standards Agency does – a very reasonable requirement that there should be a ‘demonstrable and significant risk of allergen cross-contamination’ to trigger a ‘may contain’ warning – but this is only guidance. Sadly, ignorance about allergies and manufacturing processes, and legal departments fearful of being sued if a customer has a reaction, all too often trigger a far wider use of the warnings than are justified – such as the ‘may contain nuts’ warnings on orange juice, ham, baked beans and yogurt flagged up by irate Tweeters. And these were all on Tesco products.
So, while Tesco are to be sympathised with in that their attempts to clarify allergen risk for their customers have now been banned, that is no excuse for not doing their homework in assessing each product for a ‘demonstrable and significant risk of allergen cross-contamination’ before slapping a ‘may contain nuts’ warning on it.
I was moreover somewhat shocked by the ‘allergy advice’ on the Tesco site, flagged up by Food Allergy and Intolerance Ink in his post. While not actually misleading it was imprecise and failed to give any genuine help or advice to those suffering from a reaction to food beyond the stock ‘it is essential that you consult a health professional to obtain the correct guidance’. For a company that does try hard to produce a good range of options for their food allergic/intolerant and coeliac customers, this is more than disappointing.
However…. Back to my original point. Given all of this background information, how did Tesco manage to handle the latest brouhaha so badly? Any food company that has anything to do with allergy has heard about the Alpro fiasco and must know that the allergic community are well informed, articulate and will fight fiercely to protect their own or their children’s rights. So, as soon as rumours started to spread on Twitter/Facebook that Tesco were slapping may contain nuts warnings onto all their products, why was not a senior executive who could at least speak English drafted in to handle the situation? Instead, ‘Danny from Customer Care’ posted:
‘Myself and my colleagues have stated through this post that we have now started to put ‘may contain nuts’ on all labels, due to the labelling laws changing at the end of this year. This will be happening to all products, not just those in our stores, but across all food products that are labelled.
I am sorry that you feel that this is the same answer you are getting from all of us here at Tesco Facebook. However this is the answer to why we have placed this on our labels.’
OK, call me a pompous pedant (and yes, I have been known to go through a whole press release from some random agency with a red pencil and return it with a note to say that I will read it once they write it properly…) but….
This post was inaccurate, ill informed, unhelpful and appallingly written. Hardly surprisingly, it merely sparked further fury among the allergic community. Eventually Tesco got a grip and first ‘Daniel’ (Danny trying to sound more authoritative?) and finally ‘Stuart’ added posts during the day explaining what I have already explained above. But why wasn’t Stuart there to explain it from the start?…
And please, before their stock sinks even lower among the allergic community, could Tesco make a proper allergy risk assessment for each product before adding a ‘may contain’ warning….
Post Script – 18th April
Nick Clowes, the FreeFrom brand manager at Tesco to whom I had sent a copy of this blog, emailed me to say that they had, in fact, now updated the ‘allergy advice’ on the Real Food site. Having had a quick look, it certainly is greatly improved and much more helpful – although I still find the ‘milk intolerance’ section confusing if not actually inaccurate.
I think it would have been more helpful to class milk intolerance (an inability to successfully metabolise/digest milk products, usually cow’s milk) and lactose intolerance (a failure to make enough of the enzyme lactase to properly digest the lactose sugar present in all animal milks) separately as they are separate conditions.
Post-post script…. 29th April
Tesco apologises for nut allergy warning ‘anguish’….. See the article in this morning’s Grocer magazine