New guidance to prevent free-from faux pas

There’s clearly a commercial benefit to being a free-from manufacturer, but there are lots of controls and verification points that manufacturers need to have in place to make accurate and reliable claims."

Concern over misuse of the term ‘free-from’ in relation to allergens in food products and a need for greater standardisation of manufacturing practices has led the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) to produce new guidance.

Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, the BRC’s deputy food director, said the need for the guidance had come about as a result of the growing number of food business operators making ‘free-from’ allergen or ‘allergen-free’ claims for their food products.

Whilst she said the vast majority of manufacturers of packaged foods understood that making these claims required additional strict controls, Martinez-Inchausti told this publication that there was still a general belief that some manufacturers might not have these controls in place or be aware of them.

She added that BRC members had voiced particular concerns about the inconsistent standards in free-from manufacturing that had arisen from the proliferation of the market.

In such a fast-growing industry, the concern is that new companies are coming onto the market with products that are not manufactured to the same standard and quality,she said.

By contrast, she said that some manufacturers had very tight controls in place for preventing cross-contamination. She cited the example of a UK nut-free chocolate manufacturer that doesn’t even allow staff to bring in nuts as part of their lunch.

Speaking to smaller producers

The new guide particularly addresses smaller enterprises and new or prospective market entrants, who might not be aware of what is involved in making products that carry ‘free-from’ claims.

The guide is an alert to anyone who intends to produce a free-from product. Theres clearly a commercial benefit to being a free-from manufacturer, but there are lots of controls and verification points that manufacturers need to have in place to make accurate and reliable claims,” Martinez-Inchausti said. 

As an example, she pointed out that if a chocolate manufacturer wanted to start producing a milk-free version, they would have to segregate production into two facilities and test for the presence of milk in the free-from facility.

The new guidance covers the 14 allergens outlined in the regulatory list of the Food Information Regulation.  It does not address the use of terms such as ‘free-from artificial colours/preservatives’ and ‘meat-free’.

With the exception of ‘gluten-free’, there is no specific UK or EU legislation covering ‘free-from’ claims. Free-from claims are regulated in accordance with the provisions of General Food Law and the regulations on food information.

More legislation on the cards?

Asked whether she thought regulators were likely to intervene for other allergens, Martinez-Inchausti said that she could envisage regulation of free-from claims for milk and egg in the future.

A lot of work has been done on these two allergens. As research furthers our understanding, we might see specific legislation on individual allergens.” 

The BRC-FDF Guidance on Free-From Allergen Claims document can be found here.

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