Alpro in the dock for use of defensive labeling

Alpro has caused huge concern within the dairy and nut allergic community by moving production of their nut milks into the same facility as they use for the production of their soya milk and defensively labelling their soya milks with ‘may contain traces of nut’ alerts.
Michelle Berriedale-Johnson investigates.

1. The background

Alpro

•  The Alpro soya brand was created in the late 1970s by the giant Belgian food producers Vandermoortle. In 2009 it was sold to the American Dean Foods, the world’s largest dairy company and owners of the American ’Silk’/White Wave Soya brand.

•  In the UK Alpro have, approximately, 65% of the soya milk market, 95% of the soya yogurt market, 100% of the ‘Junior’ follow on non-dairy milk market.

• Until now their soya milk has been manufactured in a factory in which nuts are not used and this has been stated on some, but not all, of their packaging.

• A couple of years ago, they launched almond and hazel milks, made under license for them off site. These have been very successful and, for perfectly valid commercial reasons, Alpro now plan to manufacture them themselves in their main site at Kettering where they already make their soya milk.

Consumers of Alpro products

• Historically Alpro’s largest market has been vegetarians and vegans.

• With the growth in childhood nut and dairy allergy over the last 20 years, Alpro soya products have provided the families of children allergic to dairy and/or nuts  with an extremely valuable range of safe, nutritious, widely distributed and well recognised products at a reasonable cost. These include:

  • Milks. For use at home but also widely used in cafés, restaurants, schools etc thereby allowing these children to socialise fairly normally outside the home – a rare treat for many of them
  • Junior milk. The Alpro follow on  ‘Junior 1+’ milk is the only dairy-free product on the market with an appropriate nutritional profile for toddlers with cow’s milk protein allergy. If it were not available all such children would need to continue on a prescription based, extremely expensive, amino-acid based formula for a further year or more.
  • ‘Cream’ – an excellent alternative for desserts and cooking
  • Yogurts. One of the very few safe desserts that these children can have at home, in friends’ houses, at school or in any food service outlets.

• As far as one can understand, Alpro do not know how large this consumer group may be but the Anaphylaxis Campaign estimates that 7% of children (around one million) in the UK have serious food allergies and 50% of those children have multiple food allergies and are therefore likely to use Alpro products.

2. The problem

• Alpro have decided that, since they are now going to manufacture nut milks in their soya milk factory, even though they plan to do so under the most stringent conditions, and implementing every check suggested by industry best practice, thereby complying with the Food Standards Agency‘s guidance for those companies wishing to avoid the use of ‘defensive labelling’…. they still ‘need’ to put a ‘may contain’ nut warning on their soya milk.

• Because ‘may contain’ warnings are totally unspecific and give no indication of the degree of contamination risk attached to that particular product, no seriously nut or dairy allergic person, and especially no parent of a nut or dairy allergic child will ever use any product with a ‘may contain’ warning of any kind on it. For the same reason no organisation, such as a school caterer will use such products and all children are taught never to touch a product with such a warning on it.

• Therefore, by putting a ‘may contain’ warning on their soya products Alpro are effectively removing all of the products listed above from these children’s diets.

3. Alpro’s contentions

  • Because they previous declared on their packs that these products were made in a ‘nut free’ factory, as an ‘ethical’ company and in order to provide full and transparent information about their products to their customers, they have no option but to warn their customers that, because they are now making nut and soya products under one roof, there could be a contamination risk.
  • Even though they intend to manufacture both products in such a way that the risk of contamination will be far too low to necessitate any kind of warning, until they are actually manufacturing them (as from January 2015), they will not know whether this is possible and therefore ‘cannot take the risk’ that one of the products might indeed be contaminated and thereby cause a fatal reaction in an allergic child.

An alternative scenario is, of course, that the legal department at their litigation-obsessed American parent companies, wished to ‘cover their backs’. As a result, even though Alpro themselves were aware that using ‘may contain’ labelling could seriously disadvantage their allergic customers, they were over-ridden.

 

The situation has been made a great deal more contentious by the fact that, in order to be ready not only for their own change in manufacture but for the new FIC (Food Information to Consumers) regulations coming into force in December 2014, they have already produced and are using packaging which carries the nut warning even though the product is still manufactured in a nut free factory.

Worse, their communication with the allergy community has been dire beyond belief.

Very belatedly last weekend (‘so difficult to organise anything over Christmas, you know….’), they invited members of the SOS Save our Soya campaign and a few other ‘relevant’ people (but, unbelievably, excluding the Anaphylaxis Campaign, the most ‘relevant’ body in this area and with whom their technical people have been working on guidelines for manufacture) to a meeting to discuss the issues. 

Meanwhile, they managed to ‘lose’ a letter about the problem from the BSACI (British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology), the Anaphylaxis Campaign  itself and the BDA (British Dietetic Association) while frustrating everyone who visited their website for more information by parroting the same totally unhelpful ‘we can only reassure you, we are doing everything possible to minimise any potential cross contamination and limit the impact this decision will have. Please do not hesitate to email or call our customer care team on the number below should you need our assistance in the future.’

So, where are we now?

Effectively, stalemate.

Alpro agreed, at the meeting at the weekend, that they would ‘re-evaluate’ the need for defensive labelling once their new production facilities had been up and running for six months and they were satisfied that they did not present any genuine risk to any allergic consumers. But given that they do not propose to start production until January 2015, we are talking about 18 months from now before they are even prepared to ‘re-evaluate’.

Meanwhile, total confusion reigns over their packaging with some old packaging still declaring that the product is made in a ‘nut free’ factory, some making no declarations at all and some carrying a ‘may contain nut traces’ warning.

Even if Alpro do ‘re-evaluate’ the need for defensive labelling in June 2015, by that time it will be too late. Schools will have stopped using Alpro milks and yogurts so that either children will have had to go without or, hopefully, some other manufacturer will have stepped in to fill the gap. The NHS will have spent hundreds of thousands on formula for allergic toddlers who would other wise have drunk the Junior 1+ or, again hopefully, someone else will have stepped in to fill the gap. Those children who had been able to go to parties, or go out with friends or on family outings and eat something pretty ‘normal’ will once again have been stigmatised….

What is so frustrating about this whole affair – quite apart from the very real distress that it is causing to the allergic community – is that it is such a retrograde step. 

There are, currently, no allergen ‘thresholds’ providing a standard to which industry can work (such as the limit of 20 parts per million of gluten below which a product can be labeled as ‘gluten free’). Both the regulators and the manufacturers have worked hard to improve risk assessment and implement procedures that would obviate the need for the defensive ‘may contain’ labelling. For one of the leading manufacturers of foods for allergic people to deliberately ignore this work and the very specific guidance* of the Food Standards Agency is massively disappointing, to put it mildly.

And what makes it even more ludicrous is that Alpro manufacture soya milk for a number of the major retailers who may well decide that their manufacturing processes are sufficiently rigorous that they do not need to use ‘may contain’ labelling. In which case we will have Alpro branded soya milk with ‘may contain’ labels sitting next door to an identical supermarket branded product with none!!

 

*Advisory labelling on possible cross-contamination with allergens should be justifiable only on the basis of a risk assessment applied to a responsibly managed operation. Warning labels should only be used where there is a demonstrable and significant risk of allergen cross- contamination, and they should not be used as a substitute for Good Manufacturing Practices.

January 2014