Food industry’s big allergy dilemma

The UK is seeking a pragmatic response to ‘may contain’ labelling which can deter customers, but new research warning of an explosion in allergies suggests the industry will continue to play it safe.

ew doubt that precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) can baffle consumers seeking to avoid certain ingredients. A survey of 5,000 subscribers to the UK’s FreeFrom newsletter last year revealed that

45% were totally confused by warnings like “may contain nuts”. Even more (56%) were actually annoyed by the ubiquitous nature of the information. The kicker, however, is that almost half (46%) said they always pay attention to the warning and never buy such products.

With that in mind, consider this: Mintel research shows that in the UK alone 39% of the population say they avoid at least one food, while a survey of 5,000 shoppers by BBC Good Food published in January suggested that 17% believe they have an allergy or intolerance (though only half have been diagnosed).

So more and more consumers tend to err on the side of caution and believe that they have an allergy or intolerance. This isn’t necessarily an issue, as Dominic Watkins, a partner at law firm DWF, explains.

“In terms of intolerances this can manifest itself in so many ways that people can see cause and effect, and reach a conclusion that – because they do not want the effect that they have experienced – they will avoid the food and decide they have an intolerance.” The fact that this conclusion is not reached by a medical professional does not make this any less valid to those concerned, he adds.

This is an opportunity rather than a problem for the food industry. According to Horizons, the use of allergen and gluten free terminology is rising 20% year on year on high street menus. In the UK, 13% of shoppers say they avoid gluten. Research by YouGov presented at Food Matters Live in November showed that about one in three (34%) of those cutting down on gluten actually have a sensitivity to it. In dairy it’s even less (31%).

According to one gluten-free supplier, Delicious Alchemy, about 12% of the population are recognised as gluten-free “lifestylers”, who choose to eat gluten-free as part of a healthy diet. In fact, 71% of households with no allergy or intolerance sufferers might buy free-from foods in the future, says YouGov.

You can see where this argument is going, but Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, director of the Freefrom Awards, the initiative behind the Allergen Safe concept, has put two and two together and concluded that food companies that also err on the side of caution with their PALs could be significantly restricting their market share.

Her reasoning is fairly simple. If the product has a PAL then more and more consumers are likely to avoid it as they shun certain ingredients in the belief that they or their children have an allergy or an intolerance, or think it’s unhealthy. Therefore, brands that have a “play it (too) safe” rather than pragmatic and robust approach to PAL will lose customers as more self-diagnose.

Research in the UK, published in November 2014, showed that of 2,851 samples with an advisory label 1,031 (36%) contained no allergen. This compared with less than 1% in which an allergen was discovered in a product with no PAL. The conclusion was that “cross contamination for all four allergens tested is well controlled”. In confectionery levels were higher but all the products carried an advisory label.

So could the Allergen Safe concept – essentially an audit-led certification scheme and logo that would give manufacturers peace of mind that they were only using PAL when they needed to without fear of legal repercussions – actually work?

“PAL presents the food industry with poor options and poor outcomes,” says Berriedale-Johnson. “There is scientific evidence showing that if manufacturing is done properly there is no significant risk to consumers.” Certification would therefore give brands and consumers peace of mind that “if there isn’t a PAL the product is safe”.

Jo Arden, the head of strategy at brand consultants 23red, claims the scheme is long overdue but warns that it will only catch on if three factors align. “First, we must have robust thresholds agreed at an EU and UK level across all allergens. Second, an effective but proportionate means to police manufacturing standards needs to be developed. And third, we must find a way to build trust in the scheme quickly from both buyers and consumers.”

It doesn’t help that there are currently no internationally agreed reference doses to inform voluntary use of PAL, including “may contain”. However, some of the clinical data suggests reference doses which may, according to the UK’s Food Standards Agency, help inform PAL decisions in the future.

Discussions are taking place on developing EU legislation in these areas. These will ensure that agreed reference doses offer the best level of protection for people with food allergies and intolerance. In all this, the safety of consumers has to remain the priority – and this could keep food companies firmly in the precautionary camp.

In March, Trace One warned the British food industry to prepare for “an explosion” in food allergies. Hospital admissions for anaphylactic shock – the most severe of allergic reactions – have doubled in the past 10 years, while admissions for serious reactions generally has increased 75%, according to research by the supply chain consultancy.

The population has grown by only 8% in this time, so this increase cannot simply be put down to there being more potential sufferers, suggests Shaun Bossons, the company’s executive vice-president for global business development. The culprit isn’t clear, but complex food formulations, food fraud, consumer confusion and mislabelling could all be to blame.

“What really needs to concern the food industry is consumer trust,” Bossons adds. “Transparency in the food supply industry will be a major step in limiting any further growth in the admissions rate.”

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