The death of 11-year-old Raffi Pownall due to milk-allergy induced anaphylaxis in June was another unbearable tragedy felt deeply throughout the allergy community.
What made the case even more poignant and painful was the fact that it was the boy’s father who gave him the chocolate that led to the reaction from which he could not be saved. As it emerged at the inquest into Raffi’s death held and reported on last week, Tom Pownall gave his son several squares of ‘free from’ chocolate which he’d acquired from the free from section at Morrisons, and which he took to be milk-free.
In fact, it was only gluten free, and contained milk powder.
#everylabeleverytime is a hashtag which does the rounds in allergy circles on Twitter, and for good reason: everyone should check every label extremely carefully and never assume.
This applies even when you’re familiar with a product and consume it or feed your children it regularly — ingredients and manufacturing methods change; an allergen can be added at short notice; the factory manufacturing it may start to manufacture a nut-containing product, and a ‘may contain’ could suddenly appear overnight.
I don’t know what the product which Raffi consumed was, and that information does not appear to have been made public, but today I went to my nearest Morrisons and was concerned at what I found.
The picture above right is a segment of the free from section, under which the chocolate products are found. At the top the clear signage GLUTEN FREE WHEAT FREE MILK FREE.
How would an ordinary shopper interpret that sign? That everything below it is GF, WF and MF? Or that everything stocked underweath was GF or WF or MF?
This matters, because if we look more closely at the chocolate, what we find is troubling.
Below are three chocolate bars, all in the Free From range: the ones centre and right are both GF and MF … but the one on the left is just GF, and contains milk powder.
Whether or not this or a similar issue is what led Raffi’s father towards error I don’t know, but I feel there is potential for more error here. Ought we be asking whether or not a ‘free from’ chocolate which is only GF but not MF really belongs in a ‘free from’ section?
Because the definition which I always subscribe to is this: a ‘free from’ food is a food which is free from one or more allergen or allergenic component ordinarily present in a mainstream equivalent. So, a sunflower seed ‘nut’ butter is clearly a free from food as it is free from the nut / peanut allergens you’ll find in all mainstream butters. A cashew or coconut or soya ‘cheese’ is clearly a free from food as it is free from milk and mainstream cheese is not.
But is a ‘gluten free’ chocolate really a ‘free from’ food? Shouldn’t chocolate be GF anyway — unless it is wafer or biscuit containing chocolate? Surely only milk free ‘milk’ chocolate should be considered a ‘free from’ food?
Now, some will argue that the GF chocolate product is a ‘free from’ food and is correctly shelved and labelled because it is (presumably) free from cross-contamination and has been tested to be below 20 parts per million of gluten — and some mainstream chocolate products carry ‘may contain traces of wheat” (or nut) warnings.
This begs the question: is food which is also protected from allergen cross contamination and/or allergen tested also a free from food which belongs in a free from section?
Gluten in Free From …
I’m not sure of where I stand on that issue, but it is not the only vexing question concerning the foods stocked in the free from aisle or the definition of free from.
What I am sure of is that the free from section should not be solely reserved for gluten free products: some egg or milk free products which are ‘free from’ products may contain gluten, and should be stocked there. Coeliac consumers complaining about finding gluten in the free from aisle is a common social media phenomenon, and it is one which can be justifiably galling for milk free and/or egg free but gluten-consuming consumers who have limited enough pickings in the free from aisle as it is.
Over the last few days I’ve had a few exchanges on Twitter, stemming from this tweet, about the brand Oggs, whose vegan cakes carry egg free and dairy free labelling, but contain gluten, and carry a precautionary allergen warning (“made in a factory”) for … eggs and dairy. It’s not the gluten which ought to disallow them from being stocked in Sainsbury’s free from aisle, in my view, but their non-suitability for anyone with egg or milk allergy for whom mainstream cakes are normally out of bounds too. What are they actually free from?
And this, of course, begs the question of whether vegan products belong in ‘free from’ sections at all. I’m leaning towards ‘No’ … unless, they are milk and/or egg allergy safe, but I’ve been in two minds on this previously, and haven’t always felt this way. I’m very interested in your thoughts on this, although must warn in advance that I may have little time for ‘coeliac disease is not a choice but veganism is’ arguments, as I’ve said before.
There is one last thing about which I am fairly confident, however — Morrisons, you really need to look again at your free from signage, as well as the milk containing chocolate which is stocked underneath the words ‘MILK FREE’. Please do so.