Jane Barringer tweeted this label from a packet of Yorkshire Crisps, Lamb and Mint flavour, recently and was, understandably, puzzled. How can a food be both ‘suitable for coeliacs’ and yet not ‘free from gluten’? Surely a contradiction?
Yes, a clear labelling error. But even if that cross against the word ‘gluten’ were to be replaced with a tick, I have a feeling one error would be corrected and yet another one created …
But first let’s deal with the glaring mistake at hand. Contrary to Walkers Crisps’ previous insistence (and perhaps continued insistence? Anyone tried contacting them about their crisps in relation to a GF query, lately? Please let me know if so), the term ‘suitable for coeliacs’ is legit on food labelling, providing it supplements a ‘gluten free’ claim. If it’s not ‘gluten free’ – and stated to be so – then you can’t use ‘suitable for coeliacs’.
Jane called Yorkshire Crisps and was told by a member of staff that the crisps had been tested and proven to be ‘suitable for coeliacs’. The chap she spoke to believed there was still a minute amount of gluten in them and this had to be declared on the label. She got the impression, she told me, that perhaps he wasn’t the most appropriate person to be speaking to on the matter, as pleasant and helpful as he was. His statement was wrong, and I shared Jane’s reservation.
So I called the offices and was told the correct man was Neil Fish, General Manager, but that he was out. I was asked to email. Neil responded fairly quickly. He told me that there had been an error: the crisps contain ‘glutamate’ and this was mistakenly read for ‘gluten’.
“It is suitable for coeliacs – I’ve got the spec to back it up,” he stressed. “The next bag run for Lamb and Mint will be in three weeks where the declaration will be amended. The reason why I didn’t scrap the bags is simply that I knew we wouldn’t be hurting anyone.”
True enough; fair enough; and mistakes happen. The web page for the crisps, by the way, already has a reassuring tick alongside ‘gluten’ in their ‘free from’ declarations.
Is ‘Free from gluten’ allowed?
The ‘free from’ table with ticks/crosses on Yorkshire Crisps’ packaging got me thinking. Since I’ve been involved in trying (and often struggling) to understand food labelling as it relates to food allergens and intolerances, mostly when researching my books, I’ve increasingly come to realise how precise the laws can be – and how easy it is to forget particulars, and have to remind yourself of them again and again, or skim over regulations that don’t seem to mean much, and yet can have practical consequences.
The following line, from the Food Standards Agency’s Guidance on the Composition and Labelling of Foodstuffs Suitable for People Intolerant to Gluten, might well shock you, or at least surprise you. It did me. You’ll find it on page 15, in a section on the labelling of foods not specifically made for coeliacs, and following a statement that the term “gluten-free” can be used to describe a food if the level of gluten present in it is 20mg/kg or less (ie 20ppm).
“No other term or claim can be used to indicate suitability for people intolerant to gluten, for instance, “free from gluten” or “naturally gluten-free” is not allowed.”
Read that again. Let it sink in. You can say ‘gluten free’ but you can neither qualify it, nor rearrange its words and say ‘free from gluten’. More sinking in. Recall some of the food labels you’ve read, or consult some of those in your kitchen – do they stick to that rule? This is something I’m going to explore a bit more deeply and return to soon, because I think it’s intimately tied to how we understand and think of gluten free foods. If you come across anything that may be relevant, feel free to email me through my website, or add a comment below.
Whether or not Yorkshire Crisps’ labelling contravenes that particular clause, I doubt the FSA will make a fuss about it; and I doubt coeliacs will be in up in arms either. Let’s face it, there are bigger fights to pick. But I have to stand up and applaud the strictness of the law in this regard, and I expect I’ll be defending it when I come write about it again.
Finally, I know from my Google Analytics that lots of people search for ‘gluten free crisps’ and land on these pages, and so if any such souls have found themselves here and merely want to be directed to some safe-for-coeliacs fried potato slices and sibling salty, snack-worthy bites, you can get rid of me at once by directing your browser without further ado towards Coeliac Student’s highly recommended post on the matter.