Even when products carry precautionary allergen labels (PALs) such as ‘may contain’ labels – also pejoratively referred to as “precautionary alibi labels” – some consumers ignore them or fail to read the small print in the mistaken belief that vegan products are safe from allergens, reported Julia Pepler, director of Food Integrity Consulting, at a conference titled ‘Building an allergen-free culture’, organised by the Society of Food Hygiene & Technology.
“Vegan implies milk- and egg-free, whether intended or not,” said Pepler at the event held on 27 February in High Wycombe. “We know that consumers will tend to disregard [PALs]; they are confusing and sometimes they require the consumer to do their own risk assessment, which is unreasonable in my opinion.”
The problem can arise from the supply of ingredients unexpectedly containing allergens or from cross-contamination when vegan and non-vegan food containing milk, egg, fish or molluscs, are manufactured on the same production lines.
“There is no point in arguing that people with severe food allergies will be well informed enough about cross-contamination issues to be suspicious of vegan products. Not all people with food allergies have that degree of understanding,” the Anaphylaxis Campaign states.
According to Allergy UK, 2-3% of children have cow’s milk allergy, which causes between 10-19% of all allergic reactions in the UK, Pepler reported. And, according to the British Society for Allergy & Clinical Immunology, one-in-20 children may have an egg allergy, she added. Both have been found in vegan products over the past year, with a number being recalled so far this year, she added.
The substitution of almond milk for cow’s milk and growing use of ingredients such as pea protein in vegan food could also present problems to those allergic to these ingredients, she added.
While there is no legal definition of vegan food, Pepler would like to see PALs removed from manufactured vegan food and for it to be labelled and guaranteed ‘free-from’ specific allergens.
Pepler, who began her career managing food allergens at Marks & Spencer, is currently also helping foodservice companies prepare for changes in allergen labelling law requiring PALs for prepacked food for direct sale (PPDS) to consumers.
The law, which takes effect on 1 October 2021, is also known as Natasha’s Law after 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who tragically died from anaphylaxis on 17 July 2016 after eating a baguette which unknown to her contained sesame ingredients to which she was allergic. It will require all food businesses to include full ingredients labelling on PPDS.
However, many in the food industry fear that revised technical guidance from the Food Standards Agency governing the policing of the new legislation will create more problems than it solves. This is not least because of confusion about the types of food packaging that fall within its remit and that exempt from it.
Meanwhile, allergens will be one of the focuses at our free webinar – hosted by Columbus – on 17 March, Product Recalls: Prevention and Cost Management.