Peanuts undercover: why the withdrawal of mislabelled EH Booths monkey nuts wasn’t mad

On 23 April 2013, the Food Standards Agency issued an allergy alert that EH Booths was withdrawing some batches of its Whole Hearted Roasted Monkey Nuts, because the presence of “peanuts” was not declared on the label. Peanut allergic customers have been advised to return the product to an EH Booths store for a full refund.

It seems this announcement has been met with some mirth. “Monkey nuts” are simply peanuts in their shells. The product was labelled “monkey nuts” and the packaging was transparent, so customers could see what they were buying. This is surely an example of health and safety gone mad, right?

Well, actually, no.

In the UK, food allergen labelling law requires that if a prepacked food or alcoholic drink contains one of the top 14 food allergens (or an ingredient made from one of those 14 allergens), this must be declared on the label, with the allergen either being specified in the name of the food or clearly marked elsewhere on the label. Those 14 allergens include “Peanuts” and, separately, “Nuts (i.e. almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia nuts and Queensland nuts)”. Therefore, when an allergic person reads a food label, they expect the label to specifically refer to “peanut”, if peanut is an ingredient.

To state the obvious, some people are only allergic to peanuts. They might be confident that they can eat tree nuts (almonds, hazelnuts etc) without a problem. Although many peanut allergic people choose to err on the side of caution and avoid eating ANY nuts whatsoever, some avoid only peanuts. Those people rely on our food labelling laws to help keep them safe. They know that if peanut is an ingredient, the label will say “peanut”.

The Allergy UK site notes that as well as “monkey nuts”, peanuts can also be called “earth nuts, ground nuts, goober nuts, mandalona nut, pinda, pig nuts, goober peas, manila nut and pinder”. Yes, it might be well known that monkey nuts are peanuts in their shells. However, would Joe Public necessarily know that a “goober pea” was a peanut? If the authorities had ignored the EH Booths labelling error, it may have been that the mistake would not have confused anybody: everyone buying those bags of monkey nuts might have known they were peanuts by another name. The danger is that this could have been the thin end of the wedge. Going forward, another manufacturer might then choose not to flag that a packet of goober peas contained peanuts. Eventually someone would be confused by the mislabelling and have an allergic reaction.

It is also irrelevant that the packet was transparent and anyone purchasing the product would have known they were buying peanuts. What if the nuts had been used in baking. “Do these biscuits contain peanuts?” “No, they’re fine, I checked all the ingredients labels…”.

It should also be remembered that purchasers of the product might not speak English. A non-English speaking, peanut allergic person, on holiday in this country might have done their research before their trip. They know that if a prepacked food from the UK or EU contains peanuts, the label should say “peanuts”. They might not be aware of all the other terms for peanut. They don’t think they need to: our law is clear. They just need to look out for the word “peanut”.

So, in conclusion, we have allergen labelling laws for a reason: to protect allergic people at risk of (sometimes life threatening) allergic reactions. Requiring the recall of the EH Booths’ monkey nuts isn’t health and safety gone mad. It’s enforcing the law to ensure that the measures protecting allergic consumers don’t begin to erode.

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