Sainsbury’s, barley malt, cereals, gluten labelling: everybody’s confused

Some confusion yesterday morning (16th January 2012) on Twitter from Sainsbury’s account concerning gluten levels in foods, which follows neatly on from my post of two weeks ago which has been so widely read and commented on (thank you all who have read, commented or emailed).

It began with Si asking Sainsbury’s about the paragraph on breakfast cereals on the first page of their brand new Product Guidance for People Avoiding GLUTEN (their caps – yes a bit scary, but I’ll press on as I’m made of stern stuff). I’ll paste it here in full:
The own-brand breakfast cereals listed are suitable for a gluten-free diet even though they contain barley malt extract and the allergy advice box states “contains gluten”. This is because they have been tested for gluten and only contain a very small amount of gluten (from the barley malt extract) which is at a level that most coeliacs can tolerate.

Si enquired whether this looked ‘odd’. Sainsbury’s offered their assistance quickly, and Si asked what that ‘very small amount of gluten’ might be. This was John from Sainsbury’s two-tweet response (combined and micro-edited for clarity):

Our own brand cereals are less than 10ppm, however due to legal changes we can't label products as gluten free if they contain any amount of gluten, items must be completely free before labeling.

We all know this is not the case. Items must be <20ppm, and not the immeasurable and probably unachievable ‘completely free’. Because I had tons of work to do I stuck my fat Italian nose in at this point and asked why a product could not be labelled gluten free if testing <10ppm. Chris from Sainsbury’s this time:

The legislation changed last year meaning we're no longer allowed the logo if the product has any traces of gluten.

He was presumably referring to the Crossed Grain logo and this is wrong again. You’re allowed the logo if a product has traces up to 20ppm (and you pay for the logo…). And the legislation changed several years ago – and became effective this year.

Still not giving much attention to the barley malt issue, I tweeted back, and was briskly directed to the Coeliac/Gluten-free labelling page on the Sainsbury’s site, which I’m not convinced the Sainsbury’s tweeters had themselves read. Later, Chris appeared to have done so, and said sorry for the confusion, and corrected himself, although I didn’t feel 100% reassured.

Perhaps wrongly, I’m less interested in mistaken customer service Tweeters than I am in the paragraph in the guidance document which Si thought odd, and which I thought odd too.

This is what I think the explanation is, from what I can gather. Barley malt extract is not gluten free and so must be declared on labels. If a product using barley malt extract has an allergy box, barley may be declared there too – which, we must remember, is also for the benefit of those with allergies, ie barley allergy, and not just coeliacs. But, because barley malt extract is so low in gluten and because so little of it is used in cereals, such products are often found to pass the <20ppm test – and therefore are safe for those on a GF diet, even if the manufacturer chooses not to label it gluten free and add claims about suitability.

Do I still think the paragraph odd? I think perhaps that ‘most’ in the last line should be removed (according to legislation, ‘suitable for coeliacs’ accompanies a <20ppm, ‘suitable for most coeliacs’ accompanies a 20-100ppm – as we’re talking <10ppm it could be argued it should be the former), but I think it would be better to make clear somehow that barley malt extract in cereals is just one of those exceptional cases – as evidenced by its specially devoted page in the Coeliac UK Food and Drink Directory.

So, problem solved? Sort of. Consider the following consequence of the labelling laws, which appears to fly in the face of common sense and logic:

A cereal with barley malt extract containing, as we’ve been told, <10ppm is not labelled ‘gluten free’ and can bear a label reading ‘contains gluten’.

And yet a theoretical cake containing, say, 15ppm, and therefore of a greater concentration of gluten than the cereal above, and also likely to be consumed in greater quantity per serving by weight, can be labelled ‘gluten free’ and will of course bear no such label.

Seems bonkers, doesn’t it.

As I don’t believe it to be compulsory, I genuinely can’t imagine why the ‘contains gluten’ warning has been included on the cereal, and I’m not at this point suggesting Sainsbury’s are mistaken in doing so, but all this does illustrate the imperfection of allergen labelling laws and the fiendish difficulty (impossibility?) of implementing a system which is both clear and flawless.

The maddening consequence of it all is that it casts doubt in our minds - even though we probably know more than we think. Yet just when we think we’ve understood labelling’s works, another spanner gets thrown in. We’re suddenly uncertain whether we get the rules at all, and we’re left with a paralysis of crushed confidence. Can I eat that? What does that mean? I’m not even confident what I’ve written above is correct, but that’s not the worst of it: the worst of it is that later today, when I’ve moved on to something else, I’ll have forgotten some of it again, and when someone asks me about something else I can’t immediately answer – what about ‘may contain’? what about ‘made in a factory…’? – I’ll be struggling to rebuild it all and rationalise it in my head and I’ll probably come to the conclusion that no, I don’t bloody understand it at all.

NB. Edited on 19th January 2012 to correct a statement made about the illegality of making a gluten-free claim on a product including a gluten-containing ingredient. This is not true, providing the product can meet sub 20ppm gluten thresholds. Coeliac UK's post below (comment 10) made this point, and I'm happy to put the record straight.

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