Free from claims misleading, says charity

By Laura Crowley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food standards agency

Technological advances in allergen detection raise questions on the
thresholds for claiming 'free from' and the validity of such a
strong guarantee, says the Anaphylaxis Campaign.

Scientific testing can now detect even miniscule traces of an allergen in products, even when the level is too small to be a problem. The UK charity says this poses challenges to manufacturers dedicated to producing free-from foods. It also questions the validity of the term 'free from', as more advanced testing could disprove the claim. "If a company says 'free from', the consumer believes this means there are no traces of the allergen; zero parts per million,"​ David Reading, director, told FoodNavigator.com. "However actually, many times traces have been later detected." ​The emerging technology could throw into disarray the 'free from' market, which has already enjoyed sales growth of over 300 per cent since 2000, according to Mintel. 'Free from' labelling ​DNA testing is so advanced that it can now detect any traces of an allergen, even when the amount is not considered a problem to allergy sufferers. However, it cannot determine the exact amounts present. Meanwhile, protein testing can detect the quantity present. As it now stands in Europe, there is no legislation determining the thresholds for companies claiming 'free from' for their products. Debate remains on what the level should be, with some accepting that very small traces are extremely unlikely to do any harm, while others believing the level should be set at zero. Either way, the charity says that 'free from' is a misleading claim, giving consumers a false sense of security. Also, the detection of traces in these products can damage a brand, making manufacturers fearful. Reading said: "More questions on acceptable levels are going to arise with progress in allergen testing. A decision will have to be made on the threshold." ​ Last month, the UK Food Standards Agency's Board (FSA) presented a progress report on food safety, presenting major work being funded or part-funded under the Allergy Action Plan. This included an investigation into the possibility of developing practical management thresholds for use by industry when making decisions about voluntary labelling such as 'may contain' or 'free from'. Meanwhile, a roundtable discussion on allergen legislation was held in Italy last month. It looked at the use of 'may contain'​ warnings on food labels, which can place unnecessary restrictions on allergy sufferers. Labelling alternatives ​Confectionery company Kinnerton has invested large amounts of money into developing stringent procedures to ensure its products are free from nuts. Although it has never found any traces of nuts in its products or received any complaints or problems, its products do not claim 'free from nuts'. Instead, they carry the statement, 'Kinnerton nut safety promise'. Last month, the group changed its labelling from 'Nut free zone', saying "it is not possible for us to state that we will guarantee in law to the levels of one part per million"​. Managing director Clive Beecham told FoodNavigator.com: "Labelling a product with 'free from' is an absolute statement, people do take these words as some sort of guarantee. But scientific testing is so invasive now, and getting stronger." ​The Anaphylaxis Campaign has launched a standard for allergen control, which intends to promote high quality management of allergens leading to reduction of risk for food companies and an accurate communication of risk to consumers. The charity hopes to launch the opportunity for certification with the standard, and any manufacturer meeting the recommendations for allergen control would be able to carry a logo that does not claim the product is allergen free, but all necessary measures have been taken to prevent contamination.

Related topics: Food safety and labeling

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