Caring for a child with food allergies is very hard. It is difficult to come to terms with the idea that something we all need to keep us alive could actually do the opposite and prove fatal.
I have a three year old daughter who has multiple allergies, which include peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, eggs and dairy among others. She cannot be exposed to the foods she is allergic to because she is at risk of a severe, potentially life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, which in its worst case scenario can be fatal. Allergies are unpredictable. The notion that something as simple as an egg or nut could kill my child is horrifying. Yet the fact is that as many as 7 in 100 children and 3 in 100 adults have at least one food allergy. One in 100 adults and 2 in 100 children are allergic to nuts.
These numbers are on the increase, with a 20% rise in childhood food allergy in the past ten years - and nobody yet knows exactly why. Providing a balanced diet for her is difficult. Reading every label when you do your food shop ensures the event is never a 'pop to the shop' affair. I rely on good labelling that provides me with what I NEED to know before I buy a food (then I also contact suppliers to double check production conditions too). I do this to keep my daughter safe. This is in line with the advice I received from her allergy consultant, which is to avoid 'may contain' foods at all costs as cross contamination can cause terrible consequences.
One of the UK's biggest retailers, Tesco, has taken it upon itself to dramatically alter its labelling policy. Suddenly, many previously safe foods are now apparently unsafe as they have ‘may contain nuts’ on them. These products literally changed their allergy information overnight. We recognise there will be risk in some foods, such as chocolate and biscuits. However, when you attempt a weekly shop for your family and find that everything from baked beans to pizza, butternut squash, potatoes, fruit juice and more are suddenly labelled as being potentially unsafe it is very disruptive and leaves you with extremely limited options for feeding your family.
Despite repeated requests from parents for information to justify these new labels, Tesco has failed to provide any clear explanation of why these foods are suddenly potentially contaminated by nuts. The only answer that has been given is that it is due to new EU legislation on allergen labelling. In fact the regulations do not legislate for 'may contain' and all guidance states there must be a 'significant and demonstrable' risk of cross contamination. Rather than making a genuine and careful assessment of the risks, it appears that Tesco is using a blanket 'may contain nuts' policy as a legal disclaimer and to avoid having to implement the proper controls to ensure even staple items of food are safe for our children.
I am calling on Tesco to act now to change its labelling procedures to ensure they are true reflections of risk. They need transparent traceability for all ingredients so a may contain label is only used with real need. The guidance is to prevent blanket statements - yet this appears to be the stance Tesco is taking.