News of the release of Galaxy‘s vegan chocolate range came in November and it was quickly announced Tesco would be the first to stock it.
Three chocolate bars were launched — Smooth Orange, Caramelised Hazelnut, Caramel & Sea Salt. The products list allergens hazelnuts in the ingredients, plus ‘may contain’ for milk, cereals containing gluten, and nuts, with an explicit ‘not suitable for people with milk allergy’ warning.
All carry the Vegan Society trademark, as this is not withheld from products potentially cross-contaminated with animal-sourced ingredients, provided other conditions are met. This is an ongoing controversy and confusion in itself among vegans and those with food allergies, which has been a problem for years, and remains unresolved.
But when it became apparent Tesco were stocking the products in their ‘free from’ section, eyebrows were raised on social media, including those of a well known face from the telly.
What are they actually free from, people wondered? As far as those with many food allergies and coeliac disease were concerned, they weren’t free from milk, nor nuts, nor gluten, and therefore unsuitable.
This was clearly a foolish decision. Several questioned it via Twitter, as did I. Feeble responses followed — Galaxy highlighted the products’ vegan-approved status and ‘informed choice’ allergen labelling, while Tesco pointed out the products were free from egg, as if the confectionary landscape is rich in examples of ovum-flavoured chocolate.
Fruitless enquiries …
After Christmas I contacted both Galaxy and Tesco press departments directly to try get an insight into this.
Neither approach proved productive.
I asked Galaxy whether they had asked to be stocked in the aisle. There was fluff in response — ‘we take allergen labelling seriously’ and the like — but despite promising to get answers their final correspondence told me they “do not have anything further to add at this time”.
I hoped for better with Tesco but no. Three times I asked to speak with someone, and twice explicitly requested Tesco’s working definition of ‘free from’, and the criteria applicable to products in that section.
My every email was responded to, but none of my questions were acknowledged, let alone answered. I was given information “as background and not for quoting”, most of which obvious, concerning Galaxy’s approach to labelling, but little else. I wish I could share it all with you, but can’t. The whole exchange was boggling.
Tesco won Retailer of the Year for five successive years in the Free From Food Awards, and deservedly so too, from my seat as a regular judge. This is a depressing and frustrating response from a supermarket which has done so much for those on restricted diets.
What is Free From?
Given Tesco is unwilling and possibly unable to define what ‘free from’ is, here’s my working definition of what I see it as and believe it should be.
A ‘free from’ food is a food which is free from at least one of the fourteen declarable food allergens which would ordinarily be present in a mainstream equivalent of that food.
Free from foods, by this definition, include gluten/wheat-free bread, almond milk, and sunflower seed butter, to give three examples.
There is an argument for including foods subject to strict allergen controls and testing, and which are free of any ‘may contain’ warnings, and I think that’s an idea to explore — although Galaxy’s vegan trio fails on that front too.
Why does all this matter?
Because if we can’t confidently define what ‘free from’ should be, and the meaning of ‘vegan’ is unclear (there is no legal definition, and The Vegan Society and the Vegetarian Society use different ones), we will see more confusion and increased risk to people with food allergies to egg and milk, and those serving them, who may assume vegan means milk/egg-allergy safe, when it does not. I tweeted a thread on these issues recently, so won’t repeat what I said there.
The blurring of vegan and ‘free from’ in the ‘free from’ aisle as exemplified in this case is dangerous. It’s different, but am reminded of the tragic case involving Morrison’s milk-containing chocolate in the ‘free from’ aisle last year.
It matters too because retailers and manufacturers should not be ducking questions whose answers may not necessarily portray them in the positive light of their choosing.
Tesco’s refusal to so much as acknowledge the questions I was asking, let alone agree to speak with me as a journalist, mirrors the tactics of right-wing governments — deflect, ignore questions, and deny access, to those who may not be prepared to sing praise. I can only wonder whether a writer approaching Tesco with a view to showcasing their latest gluten-free bakery might have been given all the information on a platter with a hamper in the post to boot.
And it matters because it insults brands who are playing this game far, far better than Galaxy. Look at the photo above. Galaxy has been cast alongside NOMO chocolate — who launched last year as both a vegan and ’14 free’ brand, safe for those with food allergies to any of the main declarable allergens.
I wonder what the team at NOMO might be thinking about being given the same prominence and respect as a far, far lesser ‘free from’ range, but one whose manufacturers are blessed with a greater profile and budget. What motivation does it give them, or any other multiple ‘free from’ brand out there for that matter, to continue to develop products suitable for people with all manner of food sensitivities?
What is the point, when your ‘free from’ standards can fall as low as Galaxy’s, and yet you can still make the grade?