On the labelling of spelt

Earlier this year in Spring, I reported an allergy labelling problem to the Food Standards Agency.

I’d been noticing for years that many manufacturers of spelt-containing products, while correctly highlighting the spelt in their ingredients lists, were failing to specify that spelt is wheat, as per the legal requirement specified in the FSA’s Technical Guidance on EUFIC Regulation 1169/2011, clause 29:

The word ‘wheat’ has to be used.

This is an important point, because many people, especially newly diagnosed coeliacs and family members of even long-standing coeliacs, are not aware that spelt is wheat. Manufacturers of spelt-based foods do not help public awareness, in my experience. Instead, they seem quite prepared to benefit from the health halo spelt derives as a result of being falsely disassociated with wheat in the public’s mind. Some, regrettably, also indulge a fantasy that spelt gluten is less toxic and ‘gentler’. (Benefits to non-coeliacs of eating spelt wheat products over mainstream wheat products are likely to be due to lower FODMAP content, but that’s another story.)

At the time of my complaint, many brands were falling foul. One was Biona from Windmill Organics, who I’d previously told were not correctly labelling their spelt products back in August 2016. (I did not hear back from them.) Their sister brand, Amisa, bore the same issue (below left). As did a brand of spelt bread called Everfresh, their 100% Sprouted Spelt Bread (below right), which I reported to the FSA.

A promising sign that the FSA were addressing the issue came with this recall of Biona Organic Spelt Lasagne Sheets in late April, which was the other product I’d reported.

In August I belatedly followed up with the FSA on progress and action. They told me that, in July, all local authorities had been told that ‘any spelt products without a clear reference to wheat should withdraw the affected products from the market’ and that they could be replaced for sale ‘once over-stickered with correct allergen labelling’.

A subsequent in-store check showed progress was indeed being made. Brands had acted. Here’s an Amisa over-sticker, with highlighted ‘spelt wheat’, with the shadow of the old label underneath:

The FSA later gave me further information about what they had done in the summer, which was very illuminating:

“In the process of our risk assessment, we received intelligence that the issue of undeclared wheat in spelt products was an industry wide issue across Europe … For the purpose of consistency, the FSA followed the approach taken by other European countries. The FSA gave industry six months to change their labelling after which no mislabelled products should be found on shelves. The reasons we gave businesses time to correct their product labels was that there were no reported widespread incidents of people being made ill and to provide the opportunity for the entire industry to resolve the issue without disadvantaging smaller firms as recalls of entire product ranges could have disproportionate impact to them. To assure all businesses producing spelt … are informed about this measure, the FSA issued a letter to local authorities to ensure that their local businesses correct their labelling within the set time frame.”

I have to commend the FSA for the balanced approach to this, which was pragmatic, not heavy handed, and understood that a zero-tolerance policy against allergen labelling regulation offences was important to uphold. They also followed up with a ‘spelt awareness campaign’ on Twitter, which you may have seen earlier this year.

The six-month period referred to comes to an end on 31st December 2018, so food manufacturers and stores must comply by that date. I fear, though, that some will be caught out … It hasn’t taken me long to find products not presently compliant. Here are Dr Karg’s Seeded Spelt crackers, available in Waitrose:

And Pyramid Spelt-Dinkel Brod, on sale in Marks & Spencer:

I’m not sure what the solution is here. Small independent delicatessens and ethnic supermarkets are, sadly, desperately in need of upping their allergy labelling game, but I’ve seen plenty of labels non-compliant in other ways in the ‘world foods’ sections of supermarkets too (imported foods often need to be over-stickered, but not always are), and if they aren’t getting it right, it does make me wonder what systems are in place at major companies to check the labels of the products that are going on their shelves.

Have they not read the FSA guidance? I have — and I’m not in the food service business. They are.

Anyway, you can report food allergen labelling errors through this FSA page, which will take you to your local trading standards office. I’ve been reliably informed by the FSA that this is correct, and that if the infringement is likely a national problem, it will be escalated to the relevant company’s primary authority (usually the authority where the company HQ is based), and acted upon accordingly.

Allergen labelling law is complicated. For instance, it’s a common mistake to believe that a gluten free statement appearing on a product highlighting wheat or barley in its ingredients is an infringement — but it’s unlikely to be, as I wrote in this post.

If you see a label you’re uncertain about, but would like to know whether or not is compliant, feel free to ask me on Twitter or leave a message below, and I’ll try to help, or find someone who can. I think we — ie free from consumers and advocates — have a key role to play in ensuring maximum standards of clarity and compliance.

This is 2014 law, but the food companies are not quite there yet.

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