What does “nut free food” actually mean?

How do you draw the line between safe and risky food for your nut allergic child? I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this of late, when compiling the Nutmums.com nut free food directory.

What do I actually mean by the phrase “nut free food”?

When grocery shopping I would consider the following types of foods as safe for D:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables (even if loose on display, as they would be washed before eating).
  • Fresh meat (either pre-packed and with no nut warning on the label, or from a butchers or farm shop who has confirmed the meat hasn’t been in proximity to nuts).
  • Dedicated “nut free brands”, namely those who proudly state their product is “nut free” or “nut safe” on the label.
  • Other pre-packed foods which contain no mention of nuts in the ingredients and have no “may contain nuts” or equivalently worded warning.

Then I read that “nut free” claims are largely unregulated (see below).

Then there’s the problem of deciphering a food manufacturer’s allergen controls. We avoid foods with nut warning labels. However, given “may contain” labelling is voluntary, if there is NO label, how do I know if a product is safe? I contact the manufacturer: but what questions should I ask? Does it need to be made in a nut free factory? If the factory handles nuts, but it’s made on a separate line to nut products, is that enough? Or can it be made on the same line, but still be “nut free” if the manufacturer’s allergen controls are stringent enough?

Sometimes it feels a bit like the more you learn, the less you know…

Intentional ingredients and “may contains”

In the UK, if a prepacked food or alcoholic drink contains one of the top 14 food allergens (or an ingredient made from them), this must be declared on the label. From December 2014, the duty to provide allergen information will be extended to foods sold loose (for example, in a bakery or over a deli counter) and when eating out. However, the allergen labelling requirements, both now and from December, only cover those ingredients which have been intentionally added to the food’s recipe. They do not cover accidental cross-contamination, where an allergen has got into the food accidentally during the manufacturing process. (For more information, see Deciphering UK food allergen labelling law).

Food manufacturers are therefore not obliged to give “may contain” warnings, to alert consumers to a potential cross contamination risk. “May contain” labels are voluntary. You cannot look at a packet and guess the manufacturer’s motivation for adding the line “may contain nuts”. They may be acting responsibly and trying to inform consumers of a genuine cross contamination risk. Or they may simply be trying to cover themselves if a consumer has an allergic reaction, irrespective of the size of the risk.

Even where you are dealing with a responsible manufacturer, the “may contain” label doesn’t convey how much of an allergen may have got into a product. Even “may contain nut traces” does not indicate there are only “trace” amounts (whatever trace means).

Similarly, if the label is silent as regards “may contains”, you cannot assume the food is therefore safe. Yes, the manufacturer MIGHT have employed exemplary allergen control measures and, after a thorough assessment, has determined that there is minimal cross contamination risk and therefore a nut warning is not necessary. On the other hand, the manufacturer might be well aware that its allergen controls are slap dash, but has decided against the use of a warning label. In each case, the level of risk is anyone’s guess.

Our family’s approach is therefore to avoid anything labelled “may contain nuts” (or equivalent wording) and to contact the manufacturer for more information where the label is silent.

When SHOULD a food manufacturer use a “may contain nuts” warning?

In 2006, the Food Standards Agency published Guidance on Allergen Management and Consumer Information. The guidance is voluntary but sets out, for food companies, what the FSA views as best practice as regards cross contamination controls and “may contain” labelling. It’s worth a read.

The guidance states (at page 5) that:

“Advisory labelling should only be used when, following a thorough risk assessment, there is a demonstrable and significant risk of allergen cross-contamination.”

What’s so special about nuts?

One thing the Tesco “may contain nuts” labelling fiasco illustrates is that, in a food manufacturer’s eyes, there seems to be something special about nuts. As health journalist Alex Gazzola commented “Why is it always nuts – and never (it seems) fish nor sesame?”. I agree: after all, Tesco labelling didn’t used to state “Recipe: No eggs. Ingredients: Cannot guarantee egg free. Factory: No eggs”.

I expect the “thing about nuts” is a combination of the total number of people diagnosed with a peanut and/or tree nut allergy, combined with the propensity of peanuts and tree nuts to cause anaphylaxis, plus the fact that peanut (according to the FSA) is “the most common cause of fatal food allergy”.

In addition to this, it seems that nut dust is one of the trickier things to control, with the FSA guidance stating that:

“Cross-contamination by small pieces of allergenic foods such as peanuts, tree nuts and sesame seeds can be exceptionally difficult to manage and therefore may warrant additional consideration for use of advisory labelling.”

If there are nuts elsewhere in the factory, does that automatically mean a product isn’t nut safe?

Not necessarily. Whilst, in an ideal world there would be dedicated production facilities for allergenic products, the FSA guidance (at page 18) notes that it is possible to separate products by:

  • Keeping them in different parts of the production area.
  • Using physical barriers between the production lines.
  • Using dedicated equipment.
  • Minimising unnecessary movement of materials.
  • Having appropriate scheduling of production runs, including cleaning the equipment between runs.
  • Managing re-work, ensuring that residual material containing an allergen is not re-worked into a product not containing the allergen.
  • Separating the air supply, where practical.

So it follows that manufacturers can make a nut safe product, even if there are nuts in the factory, if they implement sufficiently robust allergen controls.

How does a manufacturer assess a “demonstrable and significant risk” of nut cross contamination?

A thorough risk assessment requires an evaluation of the “likelihood of allergen cross-contamination across the supply chain”, namely from raw materials right through to the finished product. The guidance includes a flowchart (at page 11) which helps food companies decide if a “may contain nuts” label is required. Broadly:

  • The company must decide whether there is a probable (likely) or remote (unlikely, but still possible) risk of cross contamination from nuts.
  • In assessing whether the risk is probable or remote, the question of whether products are made on shared equipment is key. If “a food is manufactured on a production line or equipment that comes into direct contact with allergen containing materials”, the guidance appears to suggest (at page 24) that this automatically puts the cross contamination risk in the “probable” risk bracket.
  • If the risk is “remote”, a nut warning label is not appropriate. However, if the risk is “probable”, then from that starting point, you go on to look at whether the risk can be managed.
  • The company needs to consider the physical form and the characteristics of the nut-containing material. For example, nut oils are likely to pose a lower risk than whole nuts (or pieces of nut). It can be difficult to remove nut powder or particulates from machinery. 

The guidance states (at page 26) that there IS a risk of cross contamination UNLESS:

  • There is clear demonstrable evidence of a ‘visually and physically clean’ or equivalent standard, or
  • Assessment of the end product as consumed indicates little or no allergenic protein remains.

So, my reading of all this is that:

  • shared lines or equipment
  • the fact you’re dealing with peanuts and tree nuts

both point to the need for a “may contain” label. However, IF tests show there are in fact no nut traces in the final product, a may contain label ISN’T necessary.

A positive “nut free” claim

Last November, I read an article in the Economic Voice that concerned me. A survey had found that:

“3 out of 4 allergic consumers would purchase products claiming to be ‘allergen free’ on the label – despite these claims being largely unregulated.”

Whilst the FSA guidance states that where a manufacturer makes a positive “Free From” or “made in a nut free factory” claim, this should be “based on specific, rigorous controls to ensure their validity”, the point we come back to is that the guidance itself is voluntary.

I confess: I would assume something that declares itself to be “nut free” (1) didn’t have nuts in the ingredients and (2) the manufacturer at best had “specific, rigorous controls” in place, or had at least assessed the chance of cross contamination as “remote” (and therefore not needing a may contain warning).

I do understand that:

  • It is impossible to absolutely 100% guarantee that a food is nut free, even dedicated nut safe brands such as Kinnerton and Just Love Food Company acknowledge this.
  • If there was the tiniest speck of allergen in a food, there is the question of whether current allergen testing methods could pick this up.

But surely putting a “nut free” label on a packet, when there were either (1) nuts in the ingredients or (2) the cross contamination risk was “demonstrable and significant”, would be labelling food “in a way which is likely to mislead as to its nature, substance or quality” (which would therefore breach section 15 of the Food Safety Act 1990)?

I don’t know the answer to this and it seems like yet another grey area in food allergen labelling.

Surely a consumer shouldn’t be required to think this hard about what a food label means? We need to know what’s in our food and be able to make a risk assessment from the food label alone. Shouldn’t a food do exactly what it says on the tin?

The Nutmums “nut free food” directory

So, in summary, when compiling the nut free food directory, I have included those brands who:

  • State on their product labels they are “nut free”. (Please do double check with the manufacturer if you disagree with my approach on this); or
  • Have products which don’t list nuts as an ingredient and don’t state “may contain nuts” (or equivalent wording) and who have given some assurance on their website (or by email to me) that their products are nut safe.

As ever, manufacturers do change their recipes (and their production arrangements), so please do check the product label for yourself each time, and make your own enquiries of the manufacturer, if you are in any doubt about whether something is safe.

I will add to the list as I come across more nut free brands and products but if you have any product recommendations, do let me know!

5 comments

  1. Thanks for this. Really useful. I have two kids, both nut allergic but also dairy, eggs & sesame between them. I have also had to make judgement on the ‘may contain’ claims when the product doesn’t include the allergen and generally avoid them entirely and make every meal from fresh. What would also be interesting would be your take on nut-free friendly food chains so we could eat out occasionally. I am too nervous about restaurants cross contaminating to take the chance.

    1. Hi Kelly, Thanks for your comment! I wrote about how we handle eating out here: http://www.nutmums.com/will-the-new-allergen-laws-improve-eating-out-with-a-nut-allergy/ .
      I’ve also started a list of nut allergy friendly food chains here: http://www.nutmums.com/restaurants-national-chains/ – they may be dairy, egg and sesame allergy friendly too.
      If there’s a Carluccio’s near you, that would be worth a try – they were great when we visited (although we’re only avoiding nuts), but I know another allergy mum (whose daughter has multiple allergies – including nuts, dairy, eggs and sesame) who was impressed. Check out her review here: http://www.nutmums.com/restaurants/listing/carluccios-bloomsbury-central-london . (The main restaurant directory page is here: http://www.nutmums.com/restaurants).
      Hope that helps – and best of luck if you decide to give a restaurant a try.
      Louise

      1. Thanks Louise. Much appreciated. I want my kids to experience eating out but need the confidence to take them. This will give us a start!

  2. Hi what I am about to ask may be silly questions but they are making me very anxious and I hope you do not mind me asking on here. As a mum who is very new to nut allergies (my little girl was diagnosed less than a week ago) I am having feelings of anxiety over so many things. My daughter has not been allergy tested but tree nuts were the cause of a bad allergic reaction, needing to go to a&e, and I am having to keep these out of her diet as well as peanuts.
    What I would like to know is if the recipe says no nuts and the factory says no nuts but they say cannot guarantee nut free rather than ‘may contain nuts’ do you feel this is safe.
    Also is margarine using veg oil safe? I can’t seem to find one that says specifically no nuts or nut free factory. If you know of any I would be grateful to hear from you,
    Sorry about the long question and thank you for this helpful site.

    1. Hi Charlotte, Not silly questions at all! I certainly found it pretty overwhelming at first too – just kept thinking “what on earth can I feed him”. I did find it got better once you get the first couple of supermarket shops out of the way – and it gets (a bit!) quicker too!
      I think people’s approaches to “ingredients: cannot guarantee nut free” varies. I view it as just another may contain, so we avoid those products. However, I know other nut mums who would risk it (provided recipe and factory nut free), if it was on something like orange juice (as opposed to say biscuits) and possibly depending on the circumstances – e.g. were you somewhere where that was the only choice or was there an alternative your daughter could eat instead. If you like, I could post a question for you on the Nutmums Facebook page (www.facebook.com/nutmums) and see what others say?
      As for vegetable oil, my understanding is that if a prepacked food contains peanut oil or a nut oil, then the ingredients label has to say this (they can’t just call it “vegetable oil”). The Anaphylaxis Campaign has a fact sheet on vegetable oils: http://www.anaphylaxis.org.uk/what-is-anaphylaxis/knowledgebase/vegetable-oils. Allergy Adventures also recently published a fantastic baking substitutions sheet: http://www.allergyadventures.com/media/43915/Allergy_Substitutions.pdf, Which lists some free from butters on the “dairy swap” page.
      Hope that helps! Louise

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