Losing a child is a dreadful tragedy – our children are not meant to die before us. But how much more horrendous must it be to know that you caused your child’s death? So no one can have anything but the most gut wrenching sympathy for Tom, the father of Raffi Pownall who died in June from eating a gluten free chocolate bar that his father had bought for him under the impression that it was also milk free. However, Raffi’s death does throw up a number of questions and on going concerns for the allergy community.
(Image courtesy of the Manchester Evening news/Raffi Pownall family/Cavendish)
Never trust an allergy
The first is that you should never trust an allergy. Although everyone knew that Raffi had a milk allergy all that had happened on previous occasions when he had eaten milk was that he had vomited and then recovered. But on this occasion although he did vomit and used his inhaler, the reaction escalated and he died. So even if you have never had a serious reaction you cannot discount the possibility that the next time, it could be life threatening.
And then there is the whole issue of labelling.
I understand from Alex, who has written an excellent blog on the subject, that in the wake of Raffi’s death Twitter has been alive with calls for ‘better labelling’. But we already have the best and most accurate labelling that it is possible to have – the ingredients list.
Thanks to the Food Information for Consumers regulations brought in Europe wide first in 2011 and then updated in 2014, every packaged food has, by law, to carry a full ingredients list with any one the 14 major allergens included in the product highlighted. And any ingredient which is derived from an ingredient which is a major allergen (butter made from milk, for example) also has to declare that allergen. Although nothing in this world is guaranteed, if you read that list of ingredients carefully – and assuming that you are able to read the list and recognise yourallergen before you purchase a product – you should be safe. (I say provided you are able to recognise your allergen as there can be issues of legibility – font size or poor colour contrast – or unfamiliarity with language.)
So reading the ingredients list is the gold standard in safe allergen-aware shopping. But……..
It’s a pain….
Reading the ingredients list every time you buy a single item is a pain. It is time consuming and boring. While those who suffer from serious allergies themselves, or have children who do, may be prepared to do it, those who are pressed for time or who want to buy ‘freefrom’ food but will not suffer any major health consequences from eating the ‘wrong’ thing, do not want to go through the hassle. They want some signage which will allow them just to grab the product and run. Hence the proliferation of ‘freefrom’ flaggings on the front of pack.
No such thing as ‘freefrom’
The problem is that there is no definition of ‘freefrom – indeed ‘freefrom’ as such does not exist. In law, free from would mean zero – but you cannot measure to zero.
But far more confusing is that ‘freefrom’ has become a generic term adopted by a thousand groups to define products which suit their particular needs. ‘Freefrom meat’, ‘freefrom cruelty’, ‘freefrom nasties’ (one that comes up continually in our FreeFrom Skincare Awards) – plus, obviously, ‘freefrom gluten’, ‘freefrom nuts’ ‘freefrom milk’ etc. *
This would not matter were it not that, as in the case of Raffi’s dad, the assumption was made that because the chocolate bar was in the ‘freefrom’ fitting which was flagged as ‘Gluten Free • Wheat Free • Milk free’ everything on those shelves was gluten, and wheat, and milk free. In fact, on the shelves were products that were individually gluten free and wheat free and milk free – and no doubt many that were egg free, pulse free, sesame free, lupin free, tomato free etc – and many that were free of several different allergens. The crucial thing is that they were not all free of all allergens (impossible) or necessarily all even free of gluten, wheat and milk.
It is certainly arguable that, in putting a large sign (thank you, Alex, for the image) saying Gluten Free • Wheat Free • Milk Free above the fixture, Morrisons were creating confusion. Were all the products gluten, wheat and milk free? Or did the fixture include products that were individually gluten, wheat and milk free?
So should they have separate subsections in the fitting for gluten free, milk free etc? But then what happens when a products is free of both gluten and milk – where do you put it?
Or do you just label the fixture ‘Freefrom’ thus side stepping the question of what it was free from and forcing shoppers to actually read what was on the pack? This might not be that popular with shoppers wanting more instant guidance – but it might be safer for all concerned.
Meanwhile, take home message to anyone with a serious allergy or who is genuinely concerned about what is in the packet of food they are about to buy.
The law requires manufacturers to specify, accurately, what is in that product in the ingredients list on that product. No other flashes about ‘freefrom’ or anything else are regulated other than under general food safety legislation. So do NOT rely on flashes on either pack or fixture – read the ingredients list!
NB * Our requirement for entry into the FreeFrom Food Awards is the the entry’ must be free of at least one of the main major allergens – wheat/gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, soya, sulphites etc.’
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