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FSA warns consumers over ‘killer’ ice cream

By Ben Bouckley , 23-Sep-2011
Last updated on 23-Sep-2011 at 15:48 GMT

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has warned allergic consumers to check ‘dairy-free ice cream’ ingredients to ensure products don’t contain milk protein.

In its September e-newsletter the agency ran a story ‘Is your Ice Cream a Killer’, and advised people with an allergy to milk or milk products to ask caterers and ice cream vendors to check their labelling information.

The Agency said it had issued the advice because it was “aware that some ‘ice cream’ products containing non-dairy fat (but still containing milk protein) are wrongly described as ‘dairy-free’, making them potentially life-threatening to someone with a milk allergy”.

An FSA spokeswoman told DairyReporter.com: “We do not have any figures on the number of cases but it is a problem that we first became aware of a couple of years ago and we were in touch with the food industry at that time to try to resolve this.”

“We have had occasional reports since then with a recent case being reported to us by the Anaphylaxis Campaign in August this year. It would seem to be linked to ice cream vans and kiosks rather than non pre-packed ice creams bought in supermarkets.”

What is ice cream?

Although some companies made ‘ices’ containing ingredients used instead of milk ingredients – potentially suitable for someone with a milk allergy or intolerance – they are not legally entitled to call such product ice cream, said the FSA in its article.

Such products can be called ‘dairy-free’ or ‘milk free’, said the FSA, but not ice cream under its legal definition according to the Food Labelling Regulations 1996.

“Frozen products can only be described in this way if they contain at least 5 per cent fat and at least 2.5 per cent milk protein. The fat used can be either dairy fat or non-dairy (vegetable) fat, or a mixture of the two,” the agency explained.

The FSA said that most people would assume that ice cream described as ‘non-dairy’ would not contain any dairy material.

“[B]ut in fact, any product legally described as ice cream must contain milk protein – and it is the milk protein that triggers the allergic reaction,” it added.

Zelica Carr, ceo of the Ice Cream Alliance (ICA), which represents producers from across the UK, told DairyReporter.com: “We put guidelines out to our members, run a membership magazine, and I have a leading technical consultant who keeps our members updated with all legislation and explains in great detail what is dairy ice cream and what’s non-dairy.”

ICA technical consultant, Phil Pearman, added: "It appears that the people selling the non dairy ice cream are breaking the law, as ice cream has to have a minimum of 2.5 per cent dairy protein to be called ice cream. I believe our membership is kept up to date with the relevant information but non-members would not have access to this."

Grave health consequences

Asked how common instances of incorrect labelling were in relation to food allergies, food labelling consultant Dave Hill, from Food Label Check, told this publication:

“Food allergy labelling is the essence of what we do, although we don’t deal with that many ice cream enquiries because of the nature of the industry.

The most important thing was for food manufacturers and retailers to get labelling right, Hill said, “because there could be grave health consequences”.

“The ice cream industry comes in all shades of grey, from the Nestle’s of this world through to ice cream vans on street corners,” he said.

Medium-sized manufacturers also supplied retailers, while there are a large number of regional artisanal or craft suppliers who had a large market share, Hill added.

“But most of them [the smaller suppliers] are members of the ICA, so are probably well aware of the rules," said Hill.

“The ice cream industry is an industry apart from others, because of its complexity, but also because the ICA is doing great work.”

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