A business should only promote a product as ‘allergen free’ if this statement is explained. For example, the business makes it clear that the product does not contain any of the 14 regulated allergens as ingredients. If this statement is not explained, this could be misleading customers and a breach of food law.
The words of the Food Standards Agency, from July 2022.
Many of us in the ‘free from’ community are seeing increasing uses of such sweeping claims, and although it’s terrific that brands are offering us more options ticking multiple ‘free from’ boxes, the accuracy of these statements must now be seriously questioned by those with the power to influence or act.
Does ‘allergen free’ mean ‘free of all food allergens’ or ‘free the 14 declarable food allergens’? As the FSA statement implies, this isn’t clear — unless it is explained. The term is not legally defined. For a food to be free of all (possible) food allergens, it would have to be something like a filtered vegetable oil, with no proteins, or a pure sugar product, again with no proteins. ‘Non-14’ foods like pea, like lentil, like pine nut, like kiwi, and many others, are all food allergens for some.
In November and December, I collated examples of a) erroneous ‘top 14 free’ claims on products containing GF oats (which are still ‘top 14’) and b) ‘allergen free’ claims, and contacted the FSA with an offer to share them, in order to illustrate what I consider to be major problems. I told them:
I feel some form of statement or guidance or better still legislative change is required to determine when such claims may be made and should not be made, and guidance given to food brands accordingly. These sweeping claims risk misleading individuals with food allergies, and also relatives of those with food allergies, who could mistakenly assume no checks are necessary.
My offer was not taken up. I was instead referred to the Food and Drink Federation’s Guidance on ‘Free From’ Allergen Claims, but this (very good) document makes no specific mention of ‘allergen free’ / ‘top 14 free’ claims. And despite my reiteration of the actual problem, it became clear that the FSA did not appear to consider it a priority. In fact, they failed to even address it directly in their responses, instead reminding me that they are doing a lot of very other important work researching PAL and lab testing / sampling.
What I would like to see the FSA do is update their Food Allergen Labelling Technical Guidance of June 2020. This excellent document has been an invaluable reference to alert brands to their labelling breaches. For instance, and shown in full below, Clause 32 alone clarifies two commonly made errors: that gluten-free oats are declarable allergens, and that alternative expressions to “gluten-free” (such as “no gluten”) are not permitted.
Whatever the FSA’s take, I consider “allergen free” claims potentially dangerous, as they risk offering false reassurance to food allergy folk and (especially) to their well-meaning friends and relatives. Something such as “no declarable allergens” might be preferable, but the issue needs to be discussed, and guidance (if not regulation) settled upon.
Inaccurate “14 free” claims applied to products containing GF oats are less likely to end in serious incident, I would imagine, but people with oat allergy and coeliacs who have to avoid oats may potentially be misled too.
A zero-tolerance approach
In spite of what FSA say, I don’t think ‘explaining’ an ‘allergen free’ statement really solves any problem, as different brands may use different explanations, and unless guidance is given, we could end up with potentially bizarre interpretations.
A blog I wrote a year ago — It’s Time to Define — remains relevant as we launch into 2023, I feel. If we can’t pin down what our allergy vocabulary and terminology means, and when it should and should not be used, how on earth can we all understand one another and get it right — and keep everyone safe?
I maintain that we need a zero-tolerance approach to labelling infringements, and if we cannot point to a potential infringement and confidently declare it to be one with supporting evidence, then legislation needs to be tightened.
Why? Because minor misdemeanours are contagious. If we let them slide, they pop up elsewhere, as brands copy brands, and assume it’s all legit. I was recently struck, for instance, by Ocado‘s new “Top 14 allergy free” section, which wrongly includes several gluten-free-oat-containing products from Creative Nature.
What happened there, I wonder?