Should ‘Free From’ pre-packaged food products be made to contain clearer labelling?

10th January 2020

                                                                                                            by Octavia Fineman


This subject is one which I have thought about this year.  More so since December 2018 when a friend of mine, who knows I suffer from a nut allergy, bought me some ‘free from’ brownies.  She thought they would be safe for me to eat as they clearly stated on their front ‘free from’, yet they were free of all allergens but tree nuts and peanuts.  Clearly, there is ambiguity in free from product labelling.  However, would an allergy sufferer undergo the due diligence of double checking the food label, after all it is second nature to them?


But, what is leading me to write this post now is that I believe the subject is one which is considered by a range of people.  Since there has been a rise of individuals following a vegan diet food labelling has changed. Many products which are ‘plant based’ now read ‘vegan’ on their front. And earlier today, Alex Gazzola @HealthJourno raised the question of whether vegan food labels should be changed to ‘plant based’.  It was a very valid and thought-provoking question and which received a lot of response.  Alex pointed out the fact that some vegan named products still contain or may contain traces of egg, dairy and non-plant-based ingredients.  This may lead to a milk and/or egg, fish or shellfish allergy sufferer consuming the food because they consider it safe to eat, however, not knowing that the product still may contain their food allergen.  Therefore, Alex put forward his proposal to change vegan food labelling to plant-based when there may be traces of an allergen, and therefore primarily only safe for people following a vegan diet without any allergies, and vegan labelling for allergy sufferers.  This would definitely ensure that there would be no ambiguity amongst consumers. 


But then an important point was raised from another tweeter who pointed out that someone who has been following a vegan diet for years and then suddenly consumes a non-plant-based product may suffer from an adverse reaction.  Although this reaction may not be life threatening like an allergic reaction, should their health and (foreseeable) reaction not be considered too? And what about other allergy sufferers? They still have to take a chance when buying products which ‘may contain’ their food allergen.  I worry that although the suggestion is clear and concise it opens up the floodgates too much and manufacturers won’t want to take on the risk of not including a may contain alert on their food products.


UK food labelling laws state that all the 14 recognised food allergens must be clearly identifiable in the ingredients list.  As a result, all food allergens will still be clearly stated on free from and vegan labelled food products.  However, I hold the view that if packaging is able to clearly state that a product is free of some allergens, surely, they can also state clearly that they contain allergens.  Free from and vegan products are usually sold in a separate aisle in supermarkets.  Subconsciously, to me that seems that the product is immediately going to be safer for an allergy sufferer to eat than other products because they have been separated.  I also am less likely to be concerned by cross-contamination.  Yet, some free from products contain severe food allergens such as peanuts and tree nuts.  Should this be allowed?  Well of course, because not everyone has a peanut or tree nut allergy and they want to have foods with these ingredients.  However, because they are a free from product which leads the consumer to believe they are safe, I believe food manufacturers should be made to clearly identify that they do still contain life threatening allergens.  I really do not want to offend allergy sufferers either because I know they are great at reading food labels and asking questions when they are eating out.  However, it is mainly the people who are buying on behalf of them that need this clarification.  Like my friend who bought me brownies.  The fortunate individuals who do not suffer from diet restrictions or allergens do not have the habit of reading food labels or checking other products made by the same manufacturer.  Free From products to them are exactly what they say on the label, they are free from.


I know it is unlikely and may even be impossible for some products to be free of all 14 UK recognised allergens, but I do think clearer labelling needs to be made on free from and special diet pre-packaged foods, including products named as ‘vegan’.


I would love to hear what you all think on this issue.  Is it one which should be enforced upon food manufacturers and supermarkets?