The allergy awareness trap

The risk in setting out to ‘raise awareness’ — much like one to ‘be kind’ — is that once you model yourself as a proactive do-gooder, in this case to help disseminate important information to those who need it, you can become too focused on all the good you’re doing, and oblivious towards any consequential not-so-good. We’re all vulnerable to it.

It’s a partially blinkered push forward that probably meets little resistance as you pursue your worthwhile campaign. Concerns over any questionable tactics are too often cast aside by those in your various circles, due to politeness or the plain dislike of confrontation. It’s simply easier for people to give you a social media like and be done with it. Your vision is never properly re-expanded. 

I’ve seen it manifest during health awareness weeks, when brands slip into spending most of their energies promoting their products rather than the diseases those products were designed to cater for, and also in petitions, sometimes supported by charities, which call for unreasonable changes to policy and law, that would cause problems for the very people those charities were set up to support.  

All this, remember, happens under a concept which has taken on almost sacred status in allergy circles — “Awareness” … 


“We need more awareness!”

“We’re going to be debunking whether a vegan product is actually in fact vegan” begins a recent video by Creative Nature, which essentially boils down to “Does ‘vegan’ really mean vegan?” — a question I’ve been meditating on, only to reach the conclusion that one may as well investigate whether ‘suspension bridge’ really means suspension bridge. 

In order to avoid circular self-reference, the question should of course be “What does vegan mean?” and it’s anyone’s guess why CN fail to provide the Vegan Society definition, on which food labelling is based.

This feels a bit ‘maintain ignorance’ as well as ‘raise awareness’ to me — perfectly reflected in those voxpopped consumers, all surprised to be presented with a vegan and vegan-labelled product carrying a ‘may contain milk/egg’ warning.

To be vegan is to live without supporting the use and exploitation of all animals as far as is practical and possible, is roughly what the VS say, and theirs is the closest to an ‘official’ definition we have. When applied to what we eat, a vegan food means one made with vegan ingredients and intent. Accidental cross-contamination, from either milk, or eggs, or even fish, does not constitute an ingredient, and is not intentional, so does not affect vegan status

It’s unfair to conclude that the omission was deliberate — but rather than acknowledge it, and show evidence that consumers don’t grasp it, CN have been misframing the vegan problem, presenting the matter as somewhat of a legal loophole, a case of ‘false advertising’, one which some naughty ‘not really vegan’ brands are cheekily getting away with.


What must change?

It’s not unreasonable to dislike the definition, and to believe it ought to be reviewed, and legalised. I might agree.

It’s not unreasonable to think that the definition is potentially misleading, nor that at least some vegan products don’t belong in the ‘free from’ aisle. I definitely agree.

But CN’s call is more seismic. Not only are they stating some vegan foods are not vegan, but also that any product with a ‘may contain’ warning should not be in the free from aisle — presumably including those gluten-free products bearing one or two precautionary allergen warnings for allergens such as nuts that coeliacs without food allergy can safely ignore.

Such products oughtn’t even be considered ‘free from’ foods, they argue, and only products excluding all 14 declarable allergens should be in the ‘free from’ aisle, which presently “is not safe for someone with food allergies“. It’s unclear where the immediate danger might lie. Have vipers built a nest behind Mrs Crimble’s Macaroons?

Ironically, such a rule, strictly enforced, would see the back of some of CN’s own products — namely, those which contain the declarable allergen, gluten-free oats. If ‘false advertising’ is such a concern, a re-examination of their own “top 14 allergen free” brand claim should be in order. 

All this is a shame, of course. With products ticking abundant free from boxes and a young, personable team, CN have every opportunity to lead the way by example and encourage other brands to follow their cross-contamination-free policy, improving the ‘free from’ sector for all.

Instead, we’ve seen finger pointing and a call for competitors to be demoted from shelves, implications that vegans are not vegans if they consume products with ‘may contain milk/egg’, and the potential alienation of the very Society needed on side if any definition of ‘vegan’ is to be renegotiated. 

If they persist in doing that, it won’t only be more awareness they’ll be raising.

It’ll be more hackles too.

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