A post on the Sugarpuffish blog last week illustrates yet again the frustrating unintended consequences of the FSA’s attempts to keep allergic people safe.
Sugarpuffish, who is very intolerant of dairy, noticed that one of her favourite snacks, 9Bars, had taken their ‘dairy free’ declaration off their bars. Concerned that they might have changed their recipes she emailed them and they responded to the effect that nothing had changed in the manfucture of their bars which remained dairy free but….
They had recently been advised by the FSA that, in the absence of any clear guidelines on an acceptable ‘threshold’ for dairy, they would be enforcing a zero tolerance approach. This means that if any of the allergen at all, no matter how minute the amount, is found in a product – even if it is below the current levels for which a laboratory can reliably test (under 2.5 parts per million in the case of dairy) – the product will not be deemed to be dairy free. It would therefore be infringing the regulations and the makers would be liable to prosecution. (The threshold has now, as you will all know, been set at 20 parts per million for a product to be called gluten free.) Since 9Bars do use dairy in other areas of their plant, they cannot guaranteed that cross contamination could never ever happen, even be it at a minutely low level. At which point they would become guilty of selling as ‘dairy free’ a product which contained dairy, even thought the amount could be ten times smaller than the amount of gluten allowed in a ‘gluten-free’ product.
Result: another dairy-free product has been removed from the diet of those who are avoiding dairy, thus further restricting their choice.
I am not really blaming the FSA (and their partners in the EU) for this – well, not entirely anyhow. They want to ‘get science right’ before they set ‘levels’ or ‘thresholds’ for the amount of an allergen that will be ‘safe’ – and so they should. The trouble is that, not only is this an extremely lengthy process (they have already been at it for about ten years and there is little that there will be anything concrete coming out of their deliberations for another two or three years at the very minimum), but that this is not an area of absolutes.
Food allergy is extremely complex and little understood – why it happens, how it happens, what it takes to cause a reaction etc etc. Research is ongoing and the goal posts change on an almost weekly basis. Look, for example, at the ‘guidance’ given to new mothers about peanut allergy; a mere two years ago pregnant women were advised to avoid peanuts at all costs while they were pregnant; now the advice is the diametric opposite – and the research projects intended to settle the matter are still on going. Even if they come to some definite conclusions, who knows whether these will be overturned a month later by some yet newer piece of research.
So waiting ten years for guidance which may still only be provisional does not seem helpful. Why could we not have had some ‘provisional’ guidance now, or indeed five years ago? It could have been stringent (way below what was generally thought to cause a reaction) and it could have come with the proviso that those with very serious, life-threatening allergies should still treat the product with caution. At least it would have given freefrom manufacturers something to work to – and it would have avoided the current situation in which perfectly safe products are being taken off, or never being offered on, the ‘dairy-free’ market because of a risk far lower than that deemed acceptable for coeliacs. 9Bars are certainly not the only company that has removed a dairy free claim – or that has not made a dairy free claim – even though the product is totally dairy free.