Food scares come and go. Some issues, such as E.coli 0157, are genuinely serious; others, such as salmonella in eggs, may have been seriously overplayed in the media. Headlines such as 'Killer nuts' may suggest an over-reaction on a slow news day, but they should not deflect us from the probability that, unless science develops a wonder cure, allergies are here to stay. The food industry seems to have grasped that fact, and has shown no sign of relegating allergy to the status of 'two-day wonder'.
What focuses people's minds is the extraordinary fact that tiny traces of certain foods - nutritious for the majority - can be very serious indeed and even kill highly susceptible people. It might have been tempting during the early days for food companies to have ignored the minority and catered for the majority. But that minority is probably not as small as people had realised. Even life-threatening allergic reactions appear to be happening more and more frequently. Where a child is believed to be at risk, food companies must surely consider that child's wider 'support network' - parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends, schools. The list of potential customers grows.
Fortunately most food companies - partly motivated by self-preservation but also out of genuine concern - have expended large amounts of energy and money into proving they are serious. Overall, customers must find it heartening that their concerns have been taken seriously and, one would hope, their lives have been made safer.
The major issue of safe eating out will certainly continue to occupy the attention of support group leaders. Nicholas Soames stated in 1994 that legislation was not appropriate to bring caterers into line, and he is probably right. Equally, I believe customers must think hard before rushing into litigation. Quite apart from the fact that it is costly, a get-tough attitude would no doubt lead to a situation where caterers would move into defensive mode. Customers would see a sign on every café door telling them: 'If you're allergic to nuts, don't eat here.' Nevertheless, it must be argued that five years is long enough for caterers to have understood the issues and made some progress, and anyone showing a despicable lack of care would no doubt deserve the consequences.
The equally important issues of cross-contamination and defensive labelling will also run and run. In 1997 the Anaphylaxis Campaign told its members that it was working to ensure that the food industry would adopt 'a sensible approach' to cross-contamination and defensive labelling. Many of our members believe we have failed in this objective. Letters expressing anger and dismay at the growing number of 'may contain' labels make up well over half of our mail.
Responsible food companies have said they take this issue seriously and will adopt defensive labelling only as a last resort. Certainly the good practice guidelines issued by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the FDF offer real cause for optimism. But good intentions will be of value only if they are translated into action. In addition, they are good short- or medium-term solutions, but the Anaphylaxis Campaign believes that in the long term, food manufacturers will inevitably be looking at the option of opening segregated lines.
The Anaphylaxis Campaign pledged in March 1999 that it would work to ensure that the issues of cross-contamination and defensive labelling remain high on the agenda and sought a commitment from the industry that the work within the FDF and BRC was not the end of the matter, but part of a continuing dialogue. The Campaign said it would like a pledge from all sections of the food industry that they are determined to remove the 'may contain' risk in the medium and long term.
But ultimately, we must face the fact that the real answers lie with medical science. We must admit with humility that our knowledge of allergy is in its infancy, and further research will be needed to help us solve the many mysteries surrounding allergy.
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