We recently received the following email from a site visitor:
I have a son with a severe peanut allergy. We have a nut free home, and we do not buy products which ‘may contain traces’ of nuts or from factories which handle nuts, for obvious cross contamination reasons. I was really shocked to discover that a ‘freefrom’ ice cream has written on the back of it that the recipe is nut free. It goes on to say that the product comes from a factory which handles nuts!! This makes it completely NOT a ‘nut free’ product which it claims to be. Anyone with life threatening allergies sees this as a risk, which most choose to leave on the shelf!
My concern is that people, especially those who are not pro-active in researching all the risks for allergies, will pick up this product which is claiming to be nut free, and not read the small print.
‘Freefrom’ labelling is a nightmare for both consumer and manufacturer both because it is intrinsically very complicated and because it is only relatively recently that it has appeared on the radar of many manufacturers. In this particular instance the manufacturer has actually been factually accurate in what they have put on the pack – that the recipe is nut free but they they handle nuts in the factory – but this is not always the case.
Some manufacturers have still not really taken the contamination issue on board and for them (along with most of their intolerant, as opposed to allergic customers) the fact that the product does not actually contain any gluten, dairy, nuts or whatever the relevant allergen may be, is enough. Others are more contamination aware, but believe that their clean down procedures are sufficiently rigorous to ensure that there will be no allergen residues in their allergen-free products. However, this may not be enough for someone who is seriously allergic and for whom the only safe option is a dedicated allergen-free manufacturing process.
Even with a dedicated factory, there may be an issue over guaranteeing that all ingredients are allergen free – and whether the product can get contaminated on its way from the factory to the retail outlet and in the retail outlet itself…. However, communicating all of this to the consumer is not easy.
Ideally there would be some sort of traffic light labelling system in which green would indicate ‘guaranteed allergen free from a dedicated factory’, orange ‘allergen free but made in a factory which also handled the allergen’, and red ‘containing the allergen’. However, getting manufacturers, retailers and regulators to agree on any such system has proved, so far, impossible. As a result there are a confusing jumble of freefrom claims made on products, some of which give the allergic consumer accurate information about any potential risks the product may present – and some of which do not!
In this particular instance the manufacturer has tried very hard to be accurate but when a product is mislabelled it is more likely to be out of ignorance or lack of awareness than out of any malign intent to misinform. The fall out from mislabelling a product and one of their customers suffering an adverse reaction is far too damaging for most companies to wish to risk it.
Not that this is of any consolation to an allergic customer or the parent of an allergic child who has, as you say, only read the headline claim and not the small print. But sadly, for now there is little one can do about it except to try to work with companies to ensure that the claims they put on their product give the most accurate information possible – and meanwhile, to continue to read the small print….