The supermarket giant has added warnings to a variety of unlikely foods, from baked beans to pizza. Is the food different now, or is it just the labels?
Will these potatoes contain peanuts? What about this fruit juice? Preposterous questions maybe, but Clare Hussein is still asking herself them after she noticed that Tesco changed its "may contain nuts" advice on a raft of unlikely items. She has a daughter, aged three, with multiple allergies.
"These products literally changed their allergy information overnight," she says. "When you attempt a weekly shop for your family and find that everything from baked beans to pizza, butternut squash and more is suddenly labelled as potentially unsafe, it leaves you with extremely limited options for feeding your family."
Hussein, from Portsmouth, has started a petition against the store's "blanket labelling" at Change.org/tesconuts. It already has more than 13,000 signatures. Tesco is changing labelling to meet the requirements of EU legislation that comes into force in December. A spokesperson for the supermarket told us: "Our first priority is always the safety of our customers. We only display these warnings on products when there is a risk of cross contamination."
To those with no experience of nut allergies, they may seem like a fabrication of a modern world that always needs something to worry about. But allergies can kill. "One in 70 children was allergic to nuts in 2002," says Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services at Allergy UK, which is in discussion with Tesco over its labelling. "The numbers have tripled in the last decade."
To those with an allergy, nuts are difficult to avoid. "There's peanut everywhere," says Pam Ewan, consultant allergist at Addenbrookes hospital, whose controlled study of peanut oral immunotherapy was published in the Lancet in January. "Peanut eating is relatively recent. Someone who is 50 or 60 wouldn't have had nuts in their house. They were luxury items. Now the peanut is very widely used. It's in people's homes, on surfaces. If you took swabs from worktops or floors [of households without allergies], you'd find peanut."
Ewan has worked on allergies for 30 years. It was in the mid-90s, she says, that she noticed people coming to her with nut allergies. "Sixty-two cases in a year," she says. "The beginning of the uprise." But her latest research has shown a potential option, by desensitising those with peanut allergies through exposing them to tiny daily amounts of peanut protein.
At first this might mean 20mg, but by six months the exposure can reach five nuts a day. Over time, the allergy is "switched off". Ewan is not alone in exploring this cure - similar approaches have been tried in the US – but the Addenbrookes work was a controlled study. Ewan's team hopes to open a clinic in Cambridge later this year , while the long process of applying for a licence for the treatment is under way.
None of which makes Hussein's job of shopping for her daughter any easier. She says she is yet to hear back from Tesco on her queries; she wants to know whether the products themselves have changed or just the labels. However, she has noticed that some of the packaging – of ham and Hi Juice drinks –has had the "may contain nuts" information removed.
"People say: 'Shop somewhere else,'" she says, "but it's not as easy as that. I went into the greengrocer last week and they had nuts hanging in the doorway." For now, the Tesco herby potatoes and prepacked butternut squash are still off the menu.
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