I fear I am in danger of becoming a Brussels groupie here… Raving on about EFA last week and now throwing bouquets at the commission for their work on EU FIC, the new EU Food Information for Consumers including the allergen labelling changes that are causing such an upheaval in both the retail and food service industries.
We are all very used to throwing brickbats at Brussels and their commissioners for threatening the great British banger or wasting untold fortunes on traipsing MEPs backwards and forwards to Strasbourg – and I don’t doubt that many of their activities that could do with serious paring down or sprucing up. But, for those with food allergies and coeliacs, they have done a pretty sterling job over the last 25 years.
It is hard to think back now to the 1980s and ’90s when I first got involved. Yes, we did have to declare the ingredients on retail food packs – sort of – but only if they constituted more than 25% of the total product. So, for example, you did not need to declare the ingredients in the pepperoni sausage on the top of your pizza because it made up less than 25% of the total pizza. What a nightmare for food allergics!! And that did not finally go till 2005. (Funnily enough, when I Googled ‘the 25% rule’ to check the date, the first thing that came up was the article I wrote in 2005!!)
But there were no 14 major allergens, no highlighting of allergens in ingredients lists, no warnings of allergens in the recipes, no ‘may contain’ warnings about possible contamination, no dedicated gluten-free or nut free facilities, no Food Standards Agency, Allergy UK or Anaphylaxis Campaign you could turn to for advice. Indeed, in those days there was not even a FoodsMatter website, merely a home-printed monthly news sheet called Berrydales Special Diet News!! How far we have come!
But, for both the food industry and the allergic consumer, Brussels’ very proactive involvement in allergen legislation has had wider ramifications than just informing a potential purchaser of what is in the pack.
It is common knowledge that the dramatic growth in the freefrom food industry (15–20% year on year) is not down to the increase in the number of allergic or coeliac consumers, although they are increasing. The major growth has come in those who have self-diagnosed as being food intolerant and, even more important, those who are choosing to buy and eat ‘freefrom’ food because they think it is healthier and fits in better with their lifestyle. And for these last two groups, the ones that are driving the market forward and producing its dramatic growth, allergen or gluten contamination is really not an issue and super accurate labelling would be nice, but is not crucial.
So, you can see that there could be a temptation for less scrupulous food industry operators to cut a few corners and increase profit margins by cutting back on some of the measures, many of them significantly costly, needed to ensure that the food really as is free of allergens or gluten as they are claiming. Their growing market of ‘lifestyle freefrom-ers’ would never notice, as they will never suffer a reaction, and if they lost a few genuinely allergic or coeliac customers, that would not seriously dent their turnover. However, thanks to the stringent requirements of the EU food allergen regulations, they actually cannot do that. Whether their customers care about contamination, ingredient derivations and whether oats are genuinely gluten free or not, the regulations require them to be very specific about all of these things and if they get it wrong there are significant consequences.
For the genuinely allergic or coeliac consumer this means that the ever expanding market for freefrom food is not only pushing innovation and the development of more and more exciting new products, which are getting ever more widely distributed – but – that those products are ever more strictly controlled and monitored thus making them safer for them to eat!
For details on what the regulations actually mean for the pre-packed foods that you will find in the supermarket, check Alex’s article here.
For the regulations as they apply in food service – restaurants, cafés, canteens, schools etc – see the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards site here.