A new campaign from Midcounties Co-op hopes to make shopping easier for those with allergies and food intolerances. Amy Lanning finds out more.

Shopping trips are no easy ride for allergy and food intolerance sufferers. For someone allergic to nuts or intolerant to yeast, choosing food is a laborious process of scrutinising labels and scouring the shelves for something that’s not going to make them ill.

But Midcounties Co-operative hopes to put an end to this in its c-stores with a campaign to make shopping allergy-free.

According to the charity Allergy UK, about 40% of people in Britain suffer from some sort of allergy or food intolerance. Food allergy is said to affect one in four people at some time in their lives, and each year the numbers increase by 5%. Children make up half the total.

The most common concerns are cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as almonds and walnuts), wheat, soya beans, fish and shellfish, which all make up 90% of food allergies or intolerances.

The Midcounties Co-op campaign gives customers who have questions or concerns about allergies and diet the chance to pick up a free guide on how to make their shopping easier at 150 stores in Oxfordshire, Swindon, Gloucestershire, West Midlands, Worcestershire and Shropshire.

Steve Moralee, brand manager from the Midcounties Co-op, says the idea was borne from a general confusion about allergies and intolerances among customers and staff. “Having spoken to our customers and members, our store managers have identified a need for allergy guidance which is clear and easy to understand, with all the facts and figures you need. “We wanted to try to educate people, break down barriers and make it easier for people with allergies and intolerances to shop. Staff were getting a lot of requests from customers about what they can and can’t eat, so we came up with the idea of providing lists of products they could buy.”

As well as general information on allergies and food intolerances, the group supplies a list of all its own-brand products which contain ingredients that people with food allergies and intolerances may need to be aware of.

The Co-op’s information packs have been produced in conjunction with dieticians from the NHS Primary Care Trust and can be tailored to customers’ particular food concerns.

Ellie Clifford, a dietician from the community nutrition and dietetic department at Oxford Primary Care Trust, says: “The information in this guide will help customers to find suitable foods to replace those they have to avoid.
“This will help them to achieve an unrestricted, varied diet, not lacking in essential nutrients.”

Moralee adds that the campaign will also help the group keep in touch with its members. “It’s a vehicle to keep in contact with our Super Dividend members. We will load their information into a database to keep them informed.”

Shelf-talkers and leaflets in-store point customers towards the group’s customer care line and website, where they can request or download the information packs.

Market data
The free-from market grew by 400% between 2000 and 2005, but remains a relatively niche market at £90m, according to Mintel’s recent Food Intolerance and Allergies report.
The gluten- and wheat-free sector forms the largest sector, accounting for 54% of value sales, while dairy-free accounts for 36% of sales with soya milk and yogurt key product areas.

While the supermarkets dominate in the free-from sector, convenience plays a big role in terms of product demand, says Mintel.

“Convenience is an important driver in this market and most new products reflect this trend,” says the report. It adds: “Sweet-based treats, individually wrapped for eating on the go, are prevalent - for example, cereal bars, cake bars and muffins - as well as smoothies, flavoured milks and yogurts.”

Allergy or intolerance?
Food allergies activate the body’s immune system and symptoms range from mild to potentially deadly. Food intolerance, which is much more common and not as severe, is any adverse reaction to specific foods and does not usually involve the immune system. People with food allergies have to check carefully packaged food ingredients as well as the cooking procedures and ingredients used in restaurants.

Food intolerance involves an inability to digest a substance, leading to symptoms of discomfort such as stomach cramping, but which pose little danger.

Consumer views
Jo Partridge, arts administrator, London
“I’m allergic to Brazil nuts, peanuts and hazelnuts and that makes food shopping very difficult. Almost all processed foods such as ready meals will say ‘Not suitable for nut allergy sufferers’, ‘This product has been made in a factory that also produces food with nuts in’, or ‘May contain traces of nuts’. It makes me feel I am dicing with death if I take the risk and eat something that says ‘May contain nut traces’. Either it does or it doesn’t. I realise that the manufacturers are just trying to cover themselves but it makes life very difficult for people with allergies. If they could state confidently whether a product definitely contains nuts or not, that would make shopping much easier for me. I think it would be helpful if shop staff were a bit more aware of allergies - I’m not confident my local shop could give me good advice on whether a product is nut-free or not. In the same way shops offer healthier alternatives they could also offer allergy-friendly products and advertise them as such.”

Mary Carmichael, journalist, Brighton
“I have an intolerance to gluten, yeast and cow’s milk so that stops me from eating almost all convenience foods, particularly ready meals, although some crisps are okay as a special treat. I have to read the ingredients on almost everything, which used to make shopping take longer. Now I tend to avoid nearly all processed stuff. Sticking to fresh produce and raw ingredients is really the only way to be sure. Products are labelled with gluten and dairy, but not with yeast. Manufacturers and shops would make shopping easier for me if they included yeast-free labelling. But other sufferers could say the same about their own bugbears and there’s only so much room on packaging. Shops definitely have a responsibility to flag up ingredients - some can kill. Further than that, it would be hard for staff to have sufficient knowledge to be able to advise on all but the most simple issues. I would have no confidence whatsoever that the shop assistant in my local c-store would have enough knowledge to advise me correctly. Gluten, in particular, can hide under many names.”