Soames's statement that any change in labelling legislation is a European matter is quite true. That prospect was an alarming one for campaigners who were concerned about food-induced anaphylaxis and the risks of allergy sufferers inadvertently coming into contact with lethal ingredients. Soames seemed to be implying that it would be several years before all prepacked food would be adequately labelled and therefore safe. A major point for discussion was the 25% rule governing compound ingredients. Under this European regulation, any ingredient which itself consists of more than one ingredient (e.g. the salami used on a pizza topping or a sponge finger on a trifle) does not have to have its component ingredients listed if it constitutes less than 25% of the finished food. Consequently, small amounts of an ingredient may be undeclared, quite legally.
But it soon became clear that major retailers and manufacturers were responding voluntarily to allergy issues, irrespective of the regulations. Weeks after the meeting with Soames, Britain's leading supermarket chains announced that their own-brand products would show nuts on the ingredient listing whenever they are present, regardless of the 25% exemption rule. Additional measures differed from company to company, but included the provision of nut-free lists for customers and a pledge that delicatessen products - and other items sold on in-store counters - would declare nuts on the counter tickets. Some companies have turned their attention to other allergenic ingredients, such as egg, milk, sesame, shellfish and soya, and better information is almost always available for people allergic to these products. Many manufacturers have adopted similar policies, particularly where peanuts and tree nuts are concerned.
The question of whether allergic customers should be given an extra warning - such as a coloured flash or symbol - has generated much debate. The views of individual customers differ on this, some people wanting a prominent warning about the presence of nuts, others preferring a statement guaranteeing that a product is nut-free. The official view of the Anaphylaxis Campaign - not necessarily shared by every member - is that the prime concern is to get all allergenic ingredients printed in the ingredient list. Although this is sometimes hard on those with poor eyesight, we feel that people should be able to rely on one simple, uniform system of getting information. Coloured flashes or symbols that differ from company to company may only serve to confuse, particularly when these are placed well away from the ingredient list. What may be helpful is an additional statement, CONTAINS NUTS, for example, placed immediately under the ingredient list.
The problems faced in supermarket in-store bakeries are sometimes viewed as insurmountable. Bakery staff make a large range of products including bread, cakes, shortbread, doughnuts, trifles and Danish pastries, and they use peanuts, nuts and seeds in a small but significant number of these products. Consequently most supermarkets display prominent signs discouraging customers with nut or seed allergies from buying any food from their in-store bakeries because of the possibility of cross-contamination. These signs cause intense anger among allergic customers. In an attempt to understand the problems, representatives of the Anaphylaxis Campaign spent an afternoon in a typical in-store bakery and discovered that the risks are real. Lying at the root of the problem are two main factors: limited space and the human element. We noted that staff operating within a small area work quickly under pressure to meet daily deadlines. Although staff employed by that particular company are trained in allergy issues, mistakes can happen. Seeds or tiny chunks of nut occasionally wander, carried, perhaps, on a baking tray or some other container. The chance of a nut or a seed ending up on a product bought by an allergic customer is very remote indeed - but the risk does exist.
In response to the exasperation expressed by members, the Anaphylaxis Campaign has raised the issue on many occasions during discussions with retail companies. We believe there may be some room for manoeuvre. Supermarkets are probably right to discourage people with nut allergies from eating cakes or pastries bought in their in-store bakeries, but they might reduce risk where bread-making is concerned. Managers might look at their operations and consider whether it is possible to dedicate their bread-making area as a nut-free zone. Instead, most of them effectively put in-store bakery products out of bounds for people with severe allergies. I will be returning later to the general problems of cross-contamination and disclaimer labelling.
Because public attention had been focused on peanuts and nuts - those foods most commonly implicated in severe reactions - there is a danger that food companies may overlook problems presented by other ingredients. Those occasionally implicated in the UK in serious incidents include milk, egg, sesame seeds and shellfish. The most frequent problems appear to be caused by minute amounts of milk products, quite legally undeclared under the 25% rule. A few examples are as follows. A 12-year-old boy with severe milk allergy suffered a moderately serious reaction when he ate an individual apple pie manufactured by a major UK company. Quite openly, the company said milk was present in a minute quantity - believed to be 0.006% of the finished product. The same boy suffered a reaction when he ate a cereal product made by a major manufacturer. Two other children reacted to small quantities of milk at around the same time -one to a sausage, the other to a crisp-type snack. In all these cases, the milk products were quite legally undeclared. In all cases, it was heartening that the companies concerned took the problems seriously.
Consumers with allergies should be encouraged to enquire about the free booklets produced by some retailers and manufacturers. These list products free from certain ingredients such as milk, egg, soya, gluten and shellfish, as well as nuts.
So much for what has been achieved - but what about the mistakes that occasionally occur? What happens when a nut chocolate bar ends up on the shelves bearing the wrong wrapper? Or a customer opens a box of chocolate raisins to find the peanut variety inside? A crisis management expert who addressed a food industry conference in 1996 stated categorically that in such cases, the best course open to food companies was to come clean. Sweeping such mistakes under the carpet, he warned, would only lead to disaster. Fortunately, this is the thinking adopted by most - if not all - food companies when something goes wrong. During a four-month period, these were just a few of the crises that occurred:
• A nougat bar withdrawn from sale because it contained egg undeclared in the ingredient list.
• Packs of toffee yoghurt found to contain hazelnut.
• Frozen chicken fillets found to contain a small amount of egg, quite legally undeclared on the labelling because of the minute quantity used.
• Some packs of a toffee ice cream dessert thought to contain hazelnut.
• Some packs of a well-known cereal thought to contain traces of peanut.
• Packs of chocolate raisins found to contain the peanut variety.
In all cases, the companies concerned liaised with the Anaphylaxis Campaign and took action. This action varied, but in the most serious cases involved a full product recall, extensive warnings placed in the national press and a mailshot to members of the Anaphylaxis Campaign. The Campaign's mailshot system is operated where there is a significant risk to people from a food product. The usual procedure is for the company concerned to use address labels supplied by us to send a letter to each member. The company makes a commitment not to use members' details for any other purpose. We find that our members are grateful to companies that make use of this service. The British Allergy Foundation has recently adopted its own early warning system.
There is one further, important development which has huge implications for the food industry and for allergy sufferers. In 1997, research into the allergenicity of peanut oil was completed in Southampton and published in the British Medical Journal. Under strict medical surveillance, 60 peanut-allergic adults were fed refined peanut oil and also unrefined peanut oil. As a result, six of them suffered allergic reactions to the crude oil, but these were only mild reactions. None reacted to the refined oil. The researchers conclude that refined peanut oil will not cause allergic reactions for the overwhelming majority of peanut allergic individuals. The research was funded by the London-based Seed Crushers and Oil Processors Association (SCOPA), which engaged in fruitful discussions with allergy groups. We believe the findings offer genuine reassurance to people who may have been anxious about the safety of refined peanut oil.
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