Claiming 'free from' is not a light statement to make. Lives depend on it. As scientific progress questions the validity of such claims, it is time to establish exact guidelines and communicate these to people for whom ingredients are a matter of life and death.
About 4 per cent of people suffer from food allergies, causing an average of 30 deaths a year in the UK and 150 deaths in the US. Those people, who are putting their trust and lives in the hands of food manufacturers, deserve to be given all the facts. At the same time, a rapidly blossoming sector relies on maintaining the trust of these core customers. The 'free from' market has grown by over 300 per cent since 2000, according to Mintel. This market is built entirely on the ability to carry the label 'free from', but the foundations are rocky due to a lack of sufficient regulation. One mistake, one false claim, could shatter a family and bring a well-established company tumbling down while also throwing the sector into disarray. While I would not wish to throw mud at a niche sector of the industry that does a good job at providing safe food for those with dietary issues, it is baffling there is no actual legislation determining an internationally accepted threshold for manufacturers to declare 'free from' for almost all allergens. Companies have to substantiate their claim by introducing the appropriate risk assessment and allergen control systems and support it with protein testing. But scientific testing is developing all the time. Technology that a few years ago would have concluded a product was free from an allergen can now find minute traces - maybe even traces that are widely considered to pose no risk to allergy sufferers at all, but enough, nonetheless, to question the legitimacy of the statement 'free from'. Work has begun concerning some allergens. Codex, which establishes food standards on behalf of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and WHO, is on the cusp of approving an accepted threshold for gluten in 'gluten free' products. Current discussions suggest the limit will be settled at 20 parts per million (ppm) - a level that is considered to pose no risk to allergy sufferers. Across the industry, 'free from' does not necessarily mean 100 per cent free from said allergen or additive. When the issue is such a grave one, surely clear and comprehensive advice should be presented for consumers and manufacturers alike. An accepted level that poses no risk should be agreed on for each allergen in turn, and regulation developed to support it. The Anaphylaxis Campaign expresses concern about the phrase 'free from' and is in the process of introducing a logo to shows the manufacturer has met standards to ensure every care has been taken to prevent the particular allergen appearing in the product. It says most people accept the fact an unconditional guarantee cannot be made on a product being 100 per cent allergen-free. But those who wish not to risk even miniscule amounts should be provided with the facts. Ultimately, the decision should be left to the consumer on the level of risk to take. UK confectionery firm Kinnerton has recently changed its labelling from 'Nut free zone' to 'Kinnerton nut safety promise' as it does not want to risk the backlash should scientific developments mean a trace of nut is found. It said that as consumers take the words 'free from' as an absolute statement, it does not want to guarantee zero ppm as scientific testing becomes ever more stringent, but present consumers with a clear picture of the facts. As a company dedicated to providing food safe for nut sufferers, it deserves protection and guidance from regulators. But what does the admittance of possible miniscule traces or an allergen mean for the sufferer? A fear of risking their life each time they eat or drink anything? A severe restriction on the food they can eat? Or safety in the knowledge they have been presented with all the facts and the sector has received full regulation and due attention. It is time for decisions to be made on all fronts. Whether it is through changing the term 'free from' or increasing the transparency of the statement, the public and the industry deserve to know what the limits are so the choice of what to eat, however the small the amount, is in the hands of the consumer
Laura Crowley is a business reporter specialising in the food industry, with a Masters degree in journalism. If you would like to comment on this article, please email laura.crowley'at'decisionnews.com.