Understanding Allergens, Trace Warnings, and Vegan-friendliness

A totally innocent-looking bowl… or is it?

Is this bowl clean? Does this bowl contain anything except air? Should an allergic person question this bowl…?

No? Let’s put it this way. You’ve dropped some food on the floor. This isn’t at home, you’re outside. You pick it up and it’s perfectly clean – what do you do? Two second rule? No, you bin it. It’s disgusting. There could be anything on it!

That’s probably the easiest way to explain trace warnings. You can’t see it, but there could be something there. People who are severely allergic to things have to be absolutely positive that what they consume won’t contain it. Even a trace of it. This was made devastatingly obvious last year when two deaths emerged due to mislabelling or mis-information in Pret-a-Manger.

The first death, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, was due to a Sesame allergy. The law says that items created and sold on-premises don’t need to be labelled for allergens. This baguette was not, but Pret themselves said “It is believed the sesame was baked into the baguette, rather than contained in seeds on its crust”. The law is as such because, as my local Trading Standards says, the people who made it are there and can answer any queries. Obviously when all your ingredients are mass-produced and shipped in, that’s not the case.

See the source image
An example of an epi-pen – if you don’t have one you don’t need to worry about trace risks.

The second death was somewhat worse in how it occurred. This customer bought a flatbread wrap that was never meant to contain any allergens. The ingredient was meant to be totally allergen-free. However, after testing the coconut-based cream, it was found to contain trace amounts of dairy protein. Someone who carries an epi-pen with them is fearful for their life in case they are exposed to the allergen that sets off their anaphylactic reaction.

Surely the producers would know if cow milk or cheese found its way into the mixture? Of course they would! Food preparation areas are usually environments where what goes in and out is monitored. Some are even clean-rooms – an entirely controlled environment with an airlock and even disposable covers for your shoes so nothing can be tracked in from outside.

So what is a trace, and how does it get into food? A trace is measured in parts per million (ppm). It’s a microscopic amount of something that has found its way into your food somehow. Lets say that 36ppm is found in something. That’s 0.0036% of a food item being something that should be listed as an allergen. Using the wonder of maths, we can see that to get an entire gram of this item into your body you’d need to eat nearly 30kg of whatever it is. Frankly, that’s an awful lot of food. But for an allergic person, that trace in a single mouthful could mean death.

Pip’s Real Hot Chocolate label

Now we know what a trace is, I want to explain my own labelling. This example lists allergens which are not present but often are in chocolate – Nuts and Gluten. Those allergens are not allowed in my workshop, and all my ingredients are trace-free of them. You’r then told what is present – Soya Lecithin. Finally I tell you what may be present as a trace – Milk.

“But if there’s milk, surely it’s not vegan-friendly like you say??”

Veganism is an attempt to minimise consumption of animal-sourced products where possible. Almost everyone has a different personal definition of veganism, but it’s generally understood that trace risk is still considered vegan. In fact the Vegan Society states “Products suitable for vegans may not be suitable for people with allergies. Vegans avoid exploitation of animals, whereas people with allergies need products that do not contain the allergens that affect them. These are separate issues.” Because powdered milk is present in my workshop, and in fact some of the factories I get my ingredients from, trace risk is present whilst the things I list as vegan most definitely are.

So that bowl… Is it clean? Yes. Does it contain anything except air? Absolutely not. Should an allergic person question the bowl…? Most definitely. It could be a killer if you are allergic to dairy, no matter how thoroughly I wash it.

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