“If we don’t have thresholds that we can all agree on, it’s not a level playing field and the only person that is going to lose out is the consumer,” said Juliette Jahaj, speaking at a conference titled ‘Allergen thresholds: the complete picture’, organised by the Anaphylaxis Campaign and held in London last week
“[Sainsbury] looks at portion size – which is quite difficult as we don’t really know how much someone eats – and we then calculate what is the quantity of that protein [allergen] that people are likely to have consumed. And then we have to make a decision. But it is quite hard as, obviously, there are no real thresholds."
Sainsbury’s allergen thresholds
“So we have to use data that we have internally. We keep an eye on what the thresholds are and we basically have to err on the side of caution for our customers.”
Giving a retailer’s perspective of allergen thresholds and action levels, Jahaj referred to the increase in the number of allergen recalls in the UK since 2005. “I don’t think there is more of an issue, I think people are more aware of what shouldn’t be on sale,” she said.
From the alerts issued so far by the Food Standards Agency, 2017 looks like being “another bumper year”, with a large number of recalls being related to products containing wheat and milk, she added.
“Most of the reasons for them are labelling,” she said. “If you think about mankind, we have sent a man to the moon but we can’t get the right product, in the right box with the right labels on it. You’d think it would be simple.”
Portion sizes and allergens
While there were allergen threshold levels for gluten-free products of less than 20 parts per million, there is no portion size related to that, she explained. That makes it difficult to say with any certainty at what level of consumption an allergic reaction might occur, she added.
“A 500gm [gluten-free] ready meal could actually have quite a lot of gluten and a 200g packet of biscuits could have quite a lot of gluten,” she warned.
“Whereas, when we are making claims like wheat-free, milk-free, egg-free, there is no legislation apart from there shouldn’t be there. So we try to set limits at the lowest limit of quantification.”