New Guidance on Free-From Allergen Claims

The British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation, in partnership with Coeliac UK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign, have issued a new guidance document to manufacturers and caterers on making ‘free from’ claims. You can read it here.

Key guidance includes information on being able to substantiate a ‘free from’ claim of source ingredients, strict control for cross-contamination, and – where appropriate – robust sampling and testing of foods. The importance of risk assessment is strongly emphasised.

I like that the document clearly conveys the sense that a ‘free from’ claim is a serious matter when it comes to allergies and intolerances (claims relating to being free from preservatives, additives, animal ingredients etc are not within its remit).

Although gluten is not an allergen, ‘gluten free’ is the only key ‘free from’ term which we have a definition for – 20 parts per million of gluten maximum. In the absence of threshold levels for the 14 allergens, ‘free from’ – the document makes clear – must mean ‘no detectable allergen’ (according to the best analytical testing methods).

The lowest detectable level of gluten is 3ppm, and so the 20ppm threshold essentially raises the bar and gives manufacturers some leeway (the figure was set not because of this, but because it was thought a safe level for the vast majority of those with coeliac disease).

But the lowest detectable level of the whey protein beta-lactoglobulin is 0.01ppm – according to Dario Deli of Romer Labs – so I can only guess at the difficulty of meeting this extreme trace level for brands who do handle milk. Will this result in a reduction in the use of dairy/milk free claims?

On that subject, I felt it a pity that the guidance didn’t address ‘dairy free’ versus ‘milk free’. The BRC press office told me that “there has been a strong move in the market from dairy-free claims to milk-free claims” – which is good, as I think it’s needed – but I’ve not seen much evidence for it. Has anyone?

I found the key summary statement that “A ‘free from’ claim is an absolute claim unless a regulatory threshold has been set” inaccurate. An absolute claim, for me, is black or white. Gluten Free is 20ppm or below. Not gluten free is above 20ppm. The line has been drawn far lower for all other allergens – at their respective ‘no detectable’ levels, whatever they may be, and they are never zero – but it’s still a line, and that line eliminates any sliding scale when it comes to ‘free from’ messaging, essentially creating absolute states. A food or drink either is or isn’t ‘free from’ an allergen – according to this guidance – there’s no ‘fairly free from’ or ‘virtually free from’ to be had. See an older post of mine – Gluten Free is Dead – that explores this idea more fully.

The final thing to catch my eye was the reminder to manufacturers to not make a ‘free from’ statement on a product if that ‘free from’ claim can be made on all such similar products. This is actually enshrouded in a law (EU FIC 1169/2011 Article 7) that states you cannot claim a food possesses particular characteristics when all similar foods possess the same characteristics. Therefore, manufacturers can’t use ‘gluten free’ on a bottle of water. My packet of Uncle Ben’s Wholegrain claims to be ‘gluten free’, but as all pure rice is GF, that would make this dear old fellow above a law-breaker …

Someone tell me it isn’t true?

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