When is Free not really Free?

No, I am not referring to Google’s less than free strategy (courtesy of @itomuta) but to the attitude of some manufactures to disclaimers on food allergies.

We recently send an email to Hotel Chocolat to clarify the labelling in one of their Christmas products. The product is suppose to be Gluten-free. This is the answer we recieved:


Thank you for your email.

Please accept our apologies for the confusion regarding our gluten-free products.

Some of our products are gluten-free and this is clearly stated on the label, and on the dietary information on the individual items’ pages on the website. However they are all produced in the same environment as products containing gluten and therefore may contain gluten traces.

Please do not hesitate to contact us should you require further assistance.

Kind regards,

[Name Deleted]

Customer Experience Team

Hotel Chocolat Ltd

How can something be free of “X” but contains traces of it? This is equivalent to a software company saying “this is my code but it may contain traces of someone else’s!” If the SW industry can’t get away with it, why do we allow the food industry to do it?


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4 Responses to When is Free not really Free?

  1. William Roberts says:

    You don’t say why you asked the question in the first place – if it already said “Gluten Free” then perhaps they thought that you didn’t understand? If so, then rather than claim “you can eat the product and trigger any gluten intolerance reactions”, they make a safer claim “we’ve taken reasonable steps to make a product which will not trigger gluten intolerance” and leave it to you to take responsibility for the decision to risk the possibility of contamination.

    There is a parallel with free software – we take reasonable steps to ensure that contributions are made by the owner of the copyright and intellectual property. It’s OK for them to contain identified pieces of other Open Source provided it follows the wishes of the original contributors, usually expressed in the original license.

    So far so good – we don’t use gluten. Some organisations want to use Open Source software, but are very concerned that they might accidentally open themselves to being sued, or other bad consequences: this is particularly true of large commercial organisations mixing EPL source with proprietary code (i.e. many of the Symbian Foundation members!). They ask us “are you sure it’s gluten free?”, and start using tools to look for traces of gluten – matching snippets of code against other Open Source with difference licenses – perhaps one of the cooks has accidentally picked up some wheat flour traces introduced them unwittingly into the product?

    I’m with the Hotel Chocolat on this one – “The Symbian Platform may contain traces of nuts”, and if you have major intolerance, it’s your problem to look for them.

  2. victorpalau says:

    William – i think you meant ‘ may not trigger an allergic reaction’

    Although I still find ‘may contain’ messages anoying, I agree with it that at least is up to you to decide to take the risk.

    What I think is not correct is what Hotel Chocolat is doing by explicitly stating that a product is gluten free (label clearly visible) while printing in the same pack that may contain traces (in small print). You can’t have it both ways

  3. Ella Scarletti says:

    I’m also with HC on this. They mean that none of the ingredients of the product contain gluten but as they say, it has been made in an environment where gluten is or has been present.

    As with nuts, some allergy sufferers are able to tolerate traces and would be able to eat such products.

    This type of labeling is for the safety of the consumer. The company cannot know to what extent an individuals allergy reaches and so provides this information so you can make an informed decision as to whether or not a product is suitable.

    • victorpalau says:

      Hi Ella,

      Thanks for your comment! Maybe I am too passionate about this, but I can’t bring myself to agree with you 🙂

      When I buy a product I always check its content ( which by law need to be listed on the packaging) that is enough for me to identify if the product contains gluten – if the product has a “may contain traces”, then decide if the risk is worth it… normally I can always find another brand which can give the guarantees I need.

      However, when I see the product labelled as Gluten-Free I expect it to do what it says in the tin, at least safe for a coeliac to eat.

      However help is on hand, see this link
      http://www.eatwell.gov.uk/foodlabels/labellingterms/glutenfree/

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