Monday, 29 June 2015

Gluten or no gluten: an ingredients dilemma

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) - the 'voice of the food and drink industry' - have published a new guide today called Gluten Labelling Best Practice. It is in partnership with Coeliac UK, among others.

I'm not sure why this has appeared now, six months following the introduction of EU regulation 1169/2011 in December. The press release accompanying the launch says its aim is to 'support food manufacturers on the labelling of food products containing gluten', but I can speculate that it is required because a number of those manufacturers have been getting it wrong. This isn't surprising, because allergen labelling is complicated; indeed, the release talks of illustrating some examples of 'the more challenging labelling situations of gluten-containing foods'.

One of the contentious issues covered concerns the appearance of the word 'gluten' in the list of ingredients. As we know from the regulations, it is the name of the gluten grain which should be listed and highlighted when either wheat, rye, barley or oats or their derivatives are ingredients in the product. Should 'gluten' appear alongside these? It can, but in their guide the FDF advise that it shouldn't.

"... best practice is not to include the word gluten in parentheses but to solely emphasise the name of the cereal in the ingredients list. The consistent application of this particular best practice is to be recommended, as this would ensure consumer understanding by encouraging the reading of the ingredients list for the presence of the specific gluten-containing cereal. This in turn reduces the risk to individuals looking for the word “gluten”, which may not be listed."

In at least one respect, this does make sense. There is no argument for naming the allergenic protein fractions in other food allergens - such as "milk (casein)" or "egg (ovoalbumin)" - on food ingredient lists, and so for consistency, it seems logical to do likewise with respect to gluten grains. 

But as has been pointed out to me by a number of coeliacs, while coeliacs themselves will know that barley and rye contain gluten - relatives of coeliacs may not. 'Gluten' is the alarm word for such shoppers to look out for, and in its absence, mistakes might more easily be made. 

That it is essentially optional is not ideal, as it discourages the consistency which the FDF clearly find desirable. I'd like to see a decision made at EU level on whether gluten should or shouldn't appear, and be absorbed into labelling law.

That said, I can see some difficulties with including 'gluten', as (I imagine) most coeliacs would prefer. 

Take the ingredient 'barley malt flavouring', in a jar of chutney. Barley malt flavouring contains a small amount of gluten, but if no other gluten-containing ingredient is present in the chutney, the product may well be able to make an overall 'gluten free' claim. So should the ingredient appear as 'barley malt flavouring (gluten)' or 'barley malt flavouring', in this case? The first would surely confuse both coeliacs and their relatives, if appearing on a gluten free product, and yet that would be correct, under a system where gluten-containing ingredients are labelled with the word gluten. This sort of scenario would have to be covered in any legislation - perhaps with exceptions made, further complicating an already complicated area of law - and perhaps that is why the issue has not been tackled.

I'm only 60:40, but on balance, because of it, I do feel that the FDF best practice advice is probably better. Coeliacs need to look for wheat, barley, rye and oats, like nut allergics need to look for almond, walnut, cashew and the rest - and 'train' loved ones to do likewise. If it's any consolation, I suspect many manufacturers will continue to add 'gluten', and if you feel strongly about it, it's perhaps worth telling them you're happy for them to continue to do so. 

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Total Recall: Part 2

I was at a talk last year where the speaker, a small producer of gluten-free products, explained that the only testing they did on their products was via bought allergen-detection kits. In other words, they never sent their products for analytical testing at a laboratory. The speaker insisted that there was no need, as they operated gluten-free premises, and that gluten simply could not get in.

Gluten can quite often get in. Any allergen can 'get in'. Gluten is quite often there, all right - albeit at very minute levels. There are no guarantees in life. Nothing can be 100% full proof. I later learned from a technician at a laboratory that such testing kits are unreliable*, and it made me wonder about the 'gluten free-ness' of the brands' products - and those of other small brands who might cost-cut with cheaper tests, or who don't send samples to labs quite as often as the bigger brands must surely do.

Brands such as Genius, whose latest recall of products - both their own, and those manufactured for supermarkets at their Scottish premises - has sparked an online frenzy the scale of which was last seen when that poor sweet Kim lady unwittingly opened a bottle of previously-shaken champagne handed to her by some total swine who had already rudely glued a glass onto her backside.

The internet was not quite broken that time, and it was not quite broken this time, which was a pity, as I intermittently watched the fallout unfold over the subsequent days, mainly on Twitter and Facebook, thinking that I'd rather not rubberneck this one, this time. Genius, the supermarkets, and more regrettably, Coeliac UK, all got it in the neck. Understandable frustration is one thing, but unfounded allegations, abusive language, unjustified references to risks of cancer, and needless tagging - some of which is still ongoing, and including from some who ought to know better - is quite another.

It seems to me that Coeliac UK and Genius are both working hard to manage this latest crisis, and have done their best to respond to the hundreds of queries online, and no doubt many more to their helplines. What has happened precisely remains unclear. A level of gluten higher than the 20 parts per million gluten-free threshold level has been found in a number of products, and the problem appears to have been caused by a particular - but as yet unspecified - ingredient. The maximum level any product tested as was 80 parts per million - not gluten free, but nominally 'very low gluten', and far below the 200 parts per million that was in place only several years ago as gluten-free standard.

The risk to short-term health of 80ppm is low, and the risk to long-term health is negligible to zero. More sensitive coeliacs may react, though, and it seems some poor souls - including some children - appear to have, which of course is a rotten thing to happen. How Genius are handling those who say they have been made unwell, I don't know.

Although as regular readers of this blog will know, I am not a fan of some of Genius's marketing, I am a fan of Genius products - I can't recall one I didn't like on tasting - and I'm a particular admirer of Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, the founder, who I know a little personally, like very much, and has done great work in moving gluten-free food forward to a new standard. Those who have been diagnosed since the introduction of Genius bread may not appreciate this. Good gluten-free bread has only been around a few years. Bruce-Gardyne has a lot to do with it.

When I wrote about Genius's 'piegate' recall in December, I was surprised and confused by their decision to not use social media to communicate the problem. I presume they learned from some of the criticisms that were levelled at them then, realised they were foolish, and addressed it this time - their social media communication, while not perfect, has been pretty good for this recall.

As they learned from that, I expect they will learn from this - whatever it is that went wrong. People boycotting their products - as many have threatened - doesn't make sense to me, as they'll surely be safer - with additional checks that may well be implemented - than they were before. And, I suspect, they'll be safer than a lot of those smaller brands whose checking and controls may not be as strict or careful. It's worth remembering that this problem was caught and identified, albeit a bit late. How many others might not be, I wonder?

Although it's no consolation to those poor folk or their kids experiencing symptoms, who have been left confused and upset and insecure and angry, I expect Genius staff are feeling sick to the pits of their stomachs over what has happened, are struggling to cope with the fallout, and may have been left wondering whether being involved in the free from business is really worth the heartache and difficulty. Potential 'free from' entrepreneurs and start-ups out there may be thinking twice about entering the market because of this.

Not detracting from those who have become unwell and feel this is to blame, I do feel we should perhaps give Genius a break to some extent to get on with what they need to do. Needlessly attacking, speculating and kicking them when they're down cannot be productive in the long run.

If you've been affected by a Genius product under recall, email their customer care team your number and they will call you back - 

* Thanks to Andrew at Romer who has pointed out that these kits can have a role, but if used should be validated with lab testing. 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Was there sense about allergy from Sense About Science?

I'm a fan of science. I've little patience with those who consider science an optional means of understanding the world (in my experience, exclusively people who've never studied it), and I believe evidence-based medicine - which uses rigorous scientific method - is the best means of approaching truth.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Celery allergy

I know from Analytics that people come to this blog having searched for celery allergy, but I've never properly written about it before, having only mentioned it in passing. The time has come.

Celery is one of the 'big 14' food allergens, which must always be labelled in the EU, and likewise celeriac - the root of a celery-like plant.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

'Vote' on 'Vegan' / 'Vegetarian'

You have until 10pm tomorrow to have your say on how the country is governed.

And you have until 5pm Friday to have your say on how vegan and vegetarian labelling guidance is changed - or not - to reflect allergy considerations.

I have been pretty surprised that this issue has received relatively little attention, given that it affects vegetarians, vegans, those with milk, egg or fish allergies, lactose intolerants, and perhaps others, such as those following particular diets for religious reasons.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Energy healing: an Allergy UK response

You may remember my blog of a weeks ago about the energy healer who contacted me, offering to cure me of food allergies which I don't have, using untested and unorthodox methods.

It was obviously worrying. She seemed prepared to offer her 'instant' treatment, and then encourage her patient to consume their trigger food allergen, without any orthodox medicine or resuscitation equipment to hand. Her site confuses and conflates allergies and intolerances, and encourages self-diagnosis - 'give it a go at home' - of food sensitivity (including nuts and peanuts) using kinesiology.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

CD: WYNTK - NEW edition!

There were late nights last autumn, when I set about trying to fully decipher upcoming changes to food allergen labelling laws, and what this would mean for consumers with food allergy, food intolerance and - especially - coeliac disease. Should gluten necessarily be mentioned in the ingredients when present? Is there any circumstance when you might see wheat unhighlighted? Where is a 'contains' statement still permitted? Answers: No, yes - and on bottles of booze. (As was I through much of this period.)

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Why Vegan is not always Dairy Free: Part II

It's almost a year since I wrote a blog on why a 'vegan' declaration on a food or drink may not necessarily mean in practice that the product was safe for those with milk (or egg, or fish) allergy.

Following on from that post, my colleague and editor at Michelle Berriedale-Johnson asked me to write an article on the issue. I agreed, and started to research the subject in more depth. The piece has just been published on Foods Matter here

Do read it, if only for the thoughtful comments from Plamil's Adrian Ling. A summary, in point form: