Coeliac disease is a common lifelong autoimmune disease caused by a reaction to gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley, and some people are sensitive to oats. People with the condition must stick to a strict lifelong gluten free diet if they are to avoid serious complications such as osteoporosis, infertility and even a rare small bowel cancer. Food products must be labelled to inform consumers of allergens, but can these labels be trusted?

It is estimated that 1-2% of the European population is affected by the disease, although many sufferers are still undiagnosed. The highest diagnosis rates are in Finland at around 50% but most other countries lag behind ranging from approximately 15 – 30%. The average interval between the appearance of first symptoms and diagnosis is over 10 years. Leaders of coeliac patient groups throughout Europe are calling on governments to ensure there is tighter control over the use of ‘May contain’ labelling in the food industry. Many consumers are unsure whether the labels can be trusted to determine whether a product is safe to eat for coeliac disease sufferers.

To mark International Coeliac Day on Wednesday 16 May 2018, the Association Of European Coeliac Societies (AOECS) and its Member societies are coming together to raise awareness of the need for precautionary food allergen labelling legislation. As it stands, the use of statements such as ‘May contain’ to indicate potential cross-contamination is only subject to national guidance. Cross-contamination can occur at any stage of the production process, for instance through the storage or the sharing of product lines with gluten-containing products. The use of such labelling varies enormously among food companies across Europe.

“In some countries, there are many reported instances of products not having a “May contain gluten” claim when the actual tested levels of gluten exceeded 20ppm. This is not only confusing but also potentially harmful for consumers with coeliac disease. It means that they can end up eating harmful quantities of gluten without knowing it, or unnecessarily limiting their already very narrow diet. This is why we are calling for legislation to regulate and harmonise the use of precautionary labelling,” says Sarah Sleet, Chair of the Association of European Coeliac Societies (AOECS) Board 2.

Coeliac Association Malta is running a poll on its Facebook page – the results show that many in Malta find the labels confusing.