I currently live in Scotland and have found it much easier to get information about allergen and gluten ingredients in food here. The United Kingdom has stricter systems in place for providing ingredient information in both packaged foods and restaurants. The United States should look to the United Kingdom as a model for how to keep its food supply safe for citizens.
Packaged food and ingredient information
If you buy food at the grocery store in the United States, you know the pain of reading through ingredient lists, trying to identify the gluten ingredients. While some things are obvious, other things, particularly “natural and artificial flavorings” can mean anything. My recent article on coffee products gives a few examples of this.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 applies to everything except “raw agricultural commodities,” like apples and broccoli. It is an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and requires that “the label of a food that contains an ingredient that is or contains protein from a “major food allergen” declare the presence of the allergen in the manner described by the law.” FALCPA identifies eight major allergens; they are milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. The label standards require the following:
FALCPA requires food manufacturers to label food products that contain an ingredient that is or contains protein from a major food allergen in one of two ways.
The first option for food manufacturers is to include the name of the food source in parenthesis following the common or usual name of the major food allergen in the list of ingredients in instances when the name of the food source of the major allergen does not appear elsewhere in the ingredient statement.
The second option is to place the word “Contains” followed by the name of the food source from which the major food allergen is derived, immediately after or adjacent to the list of ingredients, in type size that is no smaller than the type size used for the list of ingredients. Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website
FALCPA also applies to flavoring, coloring and other incidental additives that are or contain a major food allergen. However, as we know from the Torani example, there are still apparently ways around compliance with this law.
In the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) requires food manufacturers to identify allergens by “say[ing] so clearly on the label, and list[ing] them in the ingredients.” Additionally, the UK identifies 14 major allergens, a step beyond the US’ eight (bolded in the list for comparison.) They are: celery, cereals containing gluten (wheat, rye, barley and oats), crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin (a type of legume), milk, molluscs (squid, mussels, cockles, whelks and snails), mustard, nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, soya beans, and sulphur dioxide or sulphites at levels above 10mg per kilogram or per litre. While I don’t see that it’s required, common practice here is to identify allergens in bold type in the ingredients list. I find this practice really useful, though I’m so in the habit of reading every ingredient that I still do!
Similar to the US, the UK also requires the label to be clear and “easy to read, easy to understand, and not misleading”.
The big difference in the United Kingdom is that it’s not just wheat that’s treated as an allergen, it’s all the gluten-containing grains (even oats, which don’t actually contain gluten but are often cross-contaminated.) This is especially important due to the prevalence of barley malt as an ingredient – you’ll find it in chocolate bars, potato chip seasonings and all kinds of places you wouldn’t expect it. Including it as an allergen makes it much easier to find when reading a label. The United States should consider adopting similar standards when it comes to gluten-containing grains and other allergens.
Gluten free labeling
In the United States, the FDA issued a final rule defining “gluten-free” for food labeling in 2013. This is intended to help consumers, especially those living with celiac disease, be confident that items labeled “gluten-free” meet a defined standard for gluten content. That standard is:
In order to use the term “gluten-free” on its label, a food must meet all of the requirements of the definition, including that the food must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. The rule also requires foods with the claims “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” and “without gluten” to meet the definition for “gluten-free.” Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration Press Release, August 2, 2013
The United Kingdom follows European Union guidance on gluten free labeling. The European Commission introduced labeling standards that set levels of gluten for foods claiming to be either ‘gluten-free’ or ‘very low gluten’, which came into force in January 2012.
These levels are:
- ‘gluten-free’: at 20 parts per million of gluten or less
- ‘very low gluten’: at 100 parts per million of gluten or less – however, only foods with cereal ingredients that have been specially processed to remove the gluten may make a ‘very low gluten’ claim (source: Food Standards Agency website)
I’ve never seen anything with a “very low gluten” label here, and even if I did, I wouldn’t pick it up. Essentially though, when it comes to the use of the “gluten free” label on packaged foods, the United States and United Kingdom (and European Union) are all using the same 20 parts per million standard.
In the United States, there is no federal law that requires restaurants to disclose allergen ingredients in their food. However, a few states have enacted laws, starting with Massachusetts’ 2009 Food Allergy Awareness Act (source: Today’s Dietician, September 2014.) You’ve probably noticed that national chain restaurants from McDonald’s to Chili’s have allergen menu information available on their websites and/or in the restaurants. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve made any adjustments to accommodate gluten free diners, but at least the information is there. You’ll still see a lot of disclaimers noting that food preparation is taking place in an environment where cross-contamination is possible. However, walk in to your average small business and you’ll be met with anything from understanding and good information to a blank stare and someone offering to remove the potatoes from your meal. Going out to eat with a food allergy or sensitivity in the United States is a total crap shoot, and no wonder people avoid going out to eat at all with the lack of good information in restaurants!
However, in the United Kingdom, food businesses are required to provide allergy information on food sold unpackaged, including restaurants and catering. The law came into effect in December 2014 and requires that allergen information about food being served in restaurants is available. The guidance states that the information can be provided orally or in writing. In practice, this can mean lots of things. Some restaurants just labeled their menus with gluten free tags. Some restaurants have a book with the allergen ingredients for all of their dishes that they’ll either share with a customer or consult after a customer orders. Finally, in some restaurants, your server will just go back and check with the kitchen.
So does it work? Well, it depends. Like in the US, some places really know their menus and make special efforts to be careful. Other places – well, they just don’t. One example of this is a local fish and chips restaurant (a “chippy”) that offers gluten free batter for the fish. I had eaten there a few times no problem, but then the last time I ate there, I got glutened – and really, really sick for a few days. I called the restaurant the next day to speak with the manager about what had happened and they assured me I’d received gluten free batter. I then asked about their kitchen practices and found out they’d cooked my gluten free fish in the same fryer with all the gluten. No wonder I got sick, and it’s kind of a miracle I hadn’t gotten sick earlier. So while you can say they met their legal obligation in informing me about ingredients, they certainly didn’t meet the practical requirement of not giving me gluten.
The bottom line is, while it’s a little easier to get information about the ingredients in restaurant food in the UK, you still have to be really vigilant in asking about kitchen practices.
While the United States has made big advances in the last ten years in terms of allergen identification in food labeling, they have a long way to go to catch up with the United Kingdom. The UK is making much more information available to consumers and they are requiring it to be much easier to find. I hope that the United States will look to the United Kingdom and other European countries with stricter food allergen identification rules as an example of how they can do better.