Allergy, intolerance and the labelling of "gluten free" foods

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People with food allergies have to be extremely careful about what they eat. Food labelling is very important to these people because the consequences of eating the food they are allergic to could be very serious.

In addition there is an increasing desire amongst many consumers to limit their intake of certain products such as wheat and dairy, and whilst not suffering from an allergy they seek out foods without these ingredients.

To accommodate such diets, caterers and restaurateurs have been seeking to alter their menus to provide dishes suitable for special diets and to enable them to market the fact that they can cater for this class of consumer.

However many restaurateurs' are not clear as to exactly what the relevant legislation allows them to say on their menus and in addition new labelling rules are coming into force which will ensure that all consumers are given comprehensive ingredient listing information and make it easier for people with food allergies to identify ingredients they need to avoid.

Gluten intolerance

1% of people in the UK are intolerant to gluten (often referred to as coeliac disease) and need to avoid foods containing gluten to prevent potentially serious health effects.

A new regulation came into force in January 2012 relating to foods claiming to be either "gluten free" or very low gluten and applying to all foods, either pre-packed or sold loose such as dishes served in restaurants.

Since January 2012 it has not been possible to mark dishes as "gluten free" or "very low gluten" unless foods contain no more than 20 ppm of gluten or 100 ppm of gluten respectively.

For dishes that are prepared in the kitchen, without testing the dishes such claims can not be made. The high risk of cross contamination in the catering setting means it is very difficult for most caterers to meet the levels set in law without undertaking analytical testing which is not commercially practical. Foods that are bought in which are already labelled as gluten free or very low gluten, such as bread, can be labelled as such as long as the risk of cross contamination with gluten containing foods has been controlled i.e. that the pre-packed goods are kept separately and securely in the kitchen.

However, if efforts have been made to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination, and you are making a dish from every day foods that do not meet the gluten limit even though they are not specifically made for this purpose, such as a soup made only from vegetables, you may be able to use the factual statement "no gluten containing ingredients" but it is not possible to say it is gluten free.

"Normal" foods are not allowed to make the claim "very low gluten" to provide sufficient protection for all coealiacs. The limit of 20 ppm has been set to keep a balance between maintaining consumer choice and appropriate consumer protection.

We are aware that some local authorities are now visiting restaurants to ensure that their menus do not contain reference to gluten free dishes and that enforcement of this legislation is now being undertaken.

Food Information Regulations 2013

The Food Information Regulations 2013 will come into force for the majority of food business operators in December 2014. These regulations require food business operators to include information about the allergens in their dishes in a clear and conspicuous way. It will not longer be enough for a food operator to say that they do not know whether or not a food contains an allergen or that it may contain allergens. Allergen information must be specific to the food, complete and accurate.

A consultation on the provisions of the regulation has recently closed and the final version of the guide to compliance should be issued shortly.

This regulation will put considerable burden on restaurateurs in relation to listing the ingredients in their dishes and most will require advice as to how to meet their obligations under the regulations.

A useful food allergy training tool for restaurant owners and other food business operators can be foundĀ here.