A year after the new labelling legislation came into force, I think my conclusion is that it is good in principle, but in practice it only sort of works.
I recently visited the little market that pops up on a Sunday in Camden Passage. My chat with the stallholder of Hackney Belly highlights the continuing personal responsibility coeliacs have to quiz food producers on their ingredients and production methods regardless of a label.
Hackney Belly serve a delicious looking array of baked treats, some with and some without wheat. They use the label ‘gluten free recipe’ rather than ‘gluten free’ to highlight that their food is not produced in a dedicated gluten free facility. Whilst it’s not strictly on the money in terms of the labelling law, it worked as it flagged for me to talk to them and ask in more detail about the ingredients and methods. I’m glad I did as it transpired that some of their products contained normal oats (i.e. not pure GF oats) so would not have been suitable for me. The question of ‘shared facilities’ is about your personal responsibility and the level of risk you are willing to take.
The problem with the new labelling law is that many other small producers and food outlets (and I’m sure even some mainstream ones) still use the strictly controlled ‘gluten free’ label incorrectly- when their food has not been tested to ensure its gluten levels are below 20ppm and they don’t necessarily have procedures in place to reduce cross contamination, such as when I visited this restaurant or one of the countless times in cafés when the gluten free cake is served with the wheaty tongs.
I can see why- the new system of labelling is confusing for retailers (‘no gluten-containing ingredients’ as an alternative label doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue), and if you don’t have coeliac or an allergy you don’t know the importance of being able to make an informed decision on whether you should take a risk on eating the product or not; versus the growing ‘slightly intolerant’ market.
The way labels are worded makes a massive difference to how we view the product – consider David’s reaction to the wording on the Pizza Express menu when I wonder if in reality the procedures are much different from other major pizza chains who don’t freak out the coeliacs with different phrasing on their menus? Similarly the phrase ‘no gluten containing ingredients’ on the back of Kettle Chips makes me nervous, whereas if it just listed the ingredients and no claim, I would probably buy them without thinking.
My conclusion is that one year in us coeliacs can’t afford to relax just yet – we still have a personal responsibility to ask what’s behind the label in many cases, and educate people as we go about the importance of getting the label right if you aren’t satisfied by the answers you get. The FSA made a helpful little fact sheet which I’ve emailed to a few producers now. Of course if you get repeat offenders, you can report to the FSA or trading standards too. I prefer to take the ‘helpful’ approach first, after all we want more options, not people scared to cater gluten free!