What a wasted opportunity!
The Face-o-twittersphere has been erupting during the last week over the new regulations on allergen labelling – and with reason. (The regulations are not due to come into force until December 2014 but the FSA has just issued some guidelines which is what sparked the furore.)
The regulations, which are to apply Europe-wide (a good thing) are intended to make labelling simpler for allergic people/coeliacs to follow. In fact, in every way, they have made it more difficult.
Unfortunately, the regulatory powers appear to be obsessed by ‘choice’. But while choice is a wonderful thing – indeed we are all fighting for allergic people to have just that – a choice of what they eat, and where. and how – the new regulations have got it all wrong. They are offering choice where it delivers no benefit and removing it where it does.
Under the new rules, allergens will be emphasised on the label. Food businesses can choose what method they want to use to emphasise these, for example, by listing them in bold…. Other types of emphasis may be used as well, such as italics and underlined or highlighted words.
Why the choice? Quite apart from the fact that italics do not always stand out, why not stick to one form of emphasis, bold, highlighted or underlined? Easier for manufacturers and very much easier for consumers who would then always know what they were looking for.
Some companies may also emphasise the whole word for example: wheatflour or use the words ‘from milk’ after listing the ingredient cream.
Why the option? Either manufacturers need to emphasise the allergic ingredient or they do not. The option just opens the door to confusion on the part of the consumer – and, indeed the manufacturer.
Then there is the whole question of allergen alerts – ‘contains nuts’, ‘contains wheat’, ‘contains gluten’ etc
The new rules will mean that a ‘contains x’ allergen statement can no longer be provided for food alongside an ingredients list.
Why on earth not?
Reading ingredients lists is a slow frustrating task and requires the shopper’s full attention if they are not going to miss something. (So easy with two toddlers in tow…)
Allergic shoppers take twice as long to do their weekly shop as non-allergic shoppers who do not have to scrutinise every label. Having a box which flagged up that the dish contained an allergen, speeded up the process as, if that was one of their allergens, they did not need to go any further.
Possibly even more important, if the shopper’s grasp of the language, or their eyesight, is poor, their understanding of allergy is limited or they are in a hurry, they may not read the ingredients list properly and may miss an allergen. If it had been flagged up on the pack this might not happen.
This could be of particular concern for coeliacs and gluten intolerants who may understand that wheat and even barley and rye contain gluten, but do they realise that so do couscous, and modified starch, and rusk?
Instead of removing the option of the allergy warning box, why was it not made compulsory and therefore subject to the regulations and police-able?
I am also concerned about the listing of ‘milk’ rather than ‘dairy products’ in the list of allergens that must be ’emphasised’.
Whose milk? Cow’s, goat’s, sheep? And what about cream, yogurt, ice cream which may not contain ‘milk’ as such? The FSA themselves suggest that manufacturers may want to ‘use the words from milk after listing the ingredient cream’. What happens if they don’t ‘want to use’ those words – is everyone expected to just know that ‘cream’ contains milk?
Why is this not ‘dairy products’ which covers everything that is made of, or could contain, milk products and therefore be hazardous for anyone with a milk allergy.
‘May contain’ warnings.
However the worst failure of the regulations – and one which is totally unforgivable given the amount of discussion that has gone on over the years – is that the regulators have made no attempt at all to address the ‘may contain’ defensive labelling situation – the biggest bugbear of any allergic shopper.
These regulations were an ideal opportunity to standardise reasonable warnings (contains x; made in a factory where x is also used; cannot guarantee that ingredients are x free, etc) that would allow allergic consumers to assess the level of risk posed by a product and make an informed decision as to whether they would take that risk.
If more detailed and informative information about the level of risk had also been made compulsory, and thereby, universal, shopping for those with allergies would not only have become much easier, but very much safer. As it is, they are no better off now than they have been for the last 30 years.
So, what a shame. And, what a wasted opportunity, which, given the size of the Brussels bureaucracy, is not likely to come again for a while….
For comment on the regulations as they apply to food service see my blog in August last year.