Last week supermarket Booths withdrew some batches of its Whole Hearted Roasted Monkey Nuts due to an error in allergen information: “Monkey nuts” is an alternative term for peanuts, but the word “peanuts” was not declared anywhere on the label.
The reactions to this were predictable, but one of the ones to catch my eye was from Dr Clare Gerada, who is the Chair of the Royal College of GPs. On her Twitter stream she called it “madness”, “beyond nuts” and “a sad reflection of how ridiculous we have become”.
Although peanuts are legumes (like beans, peas, chickpeas) rather than nuts, we’re generally guilty of treating them as and referring to them as nuts in an everyday context. Allergen labelling law, however, maintains the distinction rightly and clearly: peanuts are one of the 14 allergens which must be declared on labelling, and nuts (collectively – eg Brazils, hazelnuts) are another. You may react to one or the other – or both.
Clause 30 from the FSA Guidance on Allergen and Miscellaneous Labelling Provisions is worth quoting:
Whilst these may also be commonly referred to as ground nuts or monkey nuts, the term “peanuts” [their emphasis] should be used for allergen labelling purposes, as this is the term specified in Directive 2000/13/EC …
The product’s labelling fell foul of this, and was rightly withdrawn, as silly as it may seem at first consideration.
This is not about single-ingredient products having to declare the allergen they contain twice. A carton of milk labelled ‘milk’ does not need an allergy box reading ‘contains milk’, providing the word ‘milk’ appears on the front and not, say, ‘bovine udder juice’ – although Asda did slip up on this several years ago, and of course the Daily Mail duly ‘milked’ it for all its worth (throwing in some ignorance concerning food hypersensitivity for good measure). No, it’s just about ensuring the allergen is declared somewhere as the law requires it to be – and in this case it wasn’t.
Since I started compiling this piece, the brilliant allergy blogger Louise Jones has posted on the subject, with typical no-nonsense clarity. As she points out, this wasn’t a case of “health and safety gone mad”, but a sign that we have (and indeed should have) a zero-tolerance approach to allergy labelling slip-ups – and that even the most ‘safe’-seeming mistake should be dealt with, “to ensure that the measures protecting allergic consumers don’t begin to erode”. I agree. This is life or death for some people, remember.
The comments from Gerada reminded me of a previous time I spotted a prominent doctor making what I considered ill-advised remarks concerning food sensitivities, and which I blogged about in the early, far stroppier days of this blog. Dr Max Pemberton, then, showed some lack of understanding of lactose intolerance and towards those who felt food was making them ill – and I can’t help feeling that Gerada may to some extent have revealed something similar in perhaps not fully grasping how valuable allergen labelling legislation is, and as a consequence the reality of life with a serious food allergy.
Another more recent example concerned Dr Des Spence, writing in the British Medical Journal, and laying into the whole allergy ‘industry’ and questioning non-coeliac gluten intolerance – a subject Michelle Berriedale-Johnson addressed a few months ago on the FoodsMatter Blog.
We often hear that doctors don’t ‘get’ food allergy and intolerance, and while I’ve heard enough stories to know that this can absolutely be true, sometimes my instinct is to defend GPs when they’re accused of this – they’re overworked, receive little education of allergy at medical school, and so on. But when doctors react dismissively or sceptically like this, or make what seems a knee-jerk assessment, I start to be pulled back the other way, and begin to wonder how bad the picture really might be among our doctors – what the ‘culture’ of attitudes towards food hypersensitivity is among the medical fraternity in general, how doctors really look upon those suffering or who believe they are suffering.
“We are mad in the West,” says Gerada of the withdrawal of the monkey nuts. We’re really not. We have terrific allergen labelling in the EU, and evidently a good mechanism in place to ensure problems are quickly resolved, with some good allergy charities like the Anaphylaxis Campaign and Allergy UK who are quick to alert their members to a potential problem. It’s a pity that the chair of the RCGP hasn’t seen that side of the story.