The Problem with "Free From Gluten"

I once flagged up to acquaintances from various corners of the 'free from' industry the wrapping from a paleo bar bearing the expression "Free From Gluten".

The legally permitted term, according to legislation (see clause 44), is "Gluten Free". As you can see, alternatives are "not allowed".

The party, who included a senior figure from one of the main charities, generally felt it was acceptable, a minor misdemeanour, and not worth concerning oneself with.

I disagreed. Just a few months ago, I was reminded of this when I spotted Waitrose's new free-from designs and packages in stores.

Again I thought it was a problem, still do, and so I thought I'd explain why.

The value of allergen labelling
It's not over-dramatising to say that allergy labelling law saves lives.

It is enshrined in law in order to make it compulsory. If it were optional, brands would cut corners. If the rules weren't set out precisely, manufacturers would interpret them differently. Those to suffer would be the consumers - and, incidentally, the charities, who would be fielding more resource-draining queries.

Labelling and allergy are both complicated areas, which newly diagnosed patients understandably struggle with. Legislation adherence is vital to these patients to ensure consistency. Inconsistency confuses. "Why does this food say 'gluten free' and that one say 'free from gluten'?" they might ask themselves. "Is there a difference?"

If you're thinking this example is trivial, then relative to others, I'd agree. "Free from gluten" is lesser of a labelling sin than, say, including tahini in the list of ingredients, but forgetting to point out that it contains the allergen sesame. A coeliac will not go wrong with the former; but a sesame allergic skim-reading the ingredients may be in trouble with the latter.

I'm reminded of the case several years ago of the product withdrawal of some peanuts not bearing the word 'peanuts' on the packaging, as required by law. Then chair of the RCGPs Clare Gerada called the withdrawal "madness", among other things. (I blogged about it here.) It wasn't madness: it was the correct response to a breach of labelling law which happened to risk lives.

Although I wouldn't support a recall for cases of 'free from gluten', I do consider a zero-tolerance approach to all labelling error vital because it ensures that laws are taken more seriously. As soon as we permit or excuse minor infringements, that essential high bar is lowered, but to a level which is subject to opinion, not law. Relaxing our attitude chips away at the highest standard at which allergy labelling regulations should be set, and gives a permissive amber light to other manufacturers to follow suit. It's a potentially slippery-slope scenario.

And another thing ...
Would you not expect any free-from manufacturers to at very least have read the various allergen and gluten-free labelling laws, and guidance from the Food Standards Agency?

I have read them, and I would. An error makes me wonder whether brands have, and what else they might not have read, nor understood. Perhaps nothing; perhaps any error is an isolated mistake. But it still alarms me that one error, specifically described in the guidance document to be an error, can be missed. If I were 'free from' for health reasons, my confidence would be undermined.

It was on the 4th December that I asked Waitrose why they had chosen "free from gluten" for their packaging, and - with a bit of chasing - I got a satisfactory response yesterday, albeit not an answer to the question.

"We are in the process of amending our packaging to say Gluten Free. We apologise for any confusion, but customers can be reassured that all 'Free From Gluten' products are Gluten Free".

Postscript 28th January 2016: I've since been rightly corrected by a commenter on Michelle Berriedale-Johnson's blog here. William Overington correctly states that the correct claim is, in fact 'gluten-free' (with hyphen) - but who uses it? Not many ... 

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