Warning: this blog post may contain tigers.
As someone who lives with a serious food allergy, I have noticed some interesting changes in the information given on product labels over time. Over the years, I have thoroughly enjoyed the proliferation in the variety of foods (especially of the chocolate variety) whose ingredient lists show that they have been made without cow’s milk. (That’s my Kryptonite.) I also appreciate the improvements in the data contained on the packaging. But I have become less and less enamoured with the increased use of caveats.
Fine print warnings now appear on almost every package of food that might possibly contain a trace of any kind of allergen. Some of them are helpful statements. For instance, ‘this product does not contain milk products but is manufactured on equipment that is also used to make products containing milk’. This specific and clear statement enables me to make an informed decision.
The tiger problem
I am less keen on some of the other commonly-found and less specific warnings, though. Rather than giving any positive information about where milk may have entered the production process, instead some labels simply warn that the manufacturer cannot guarantee that a product is free of any particular allergen. Such unhelpful gems of advice are generally found on the labels of foods which have almost certainly never been within a hundred yards of a cow, or the output of her udder, in their entire production process. Often they have been available for years without the need for a warning. Sometimes manufacturers go so far as to issue a universal caveat. ‘This product may contain milk, wheat, nuts or any other allergens’. I’ve seen that even on packets of fruit. And no, I’m not joking.
The product may also contain tigers, volcanic lava, or Polyjuice, but it probably doesn’t.
Tigers and risk management
Such issues are a frequent source of discussion in my world. Long before it became apparent in the UK some years ago that some manufacturers had omitted to declare the presence of horses on certain food labels (which highlights that a problem exists in both directions), the phrase ‘may contain tigers’ was a kind of shorthand among my family and friends.
This shorthand initially developed as a response to what would appear to be the ever-increasing risk management tactics of food manufacturing companies. When I first started to notice this general warning appearing on food labels, I avoided the relevant products. When it started appearing with a frequency that suggested it might have a dramatic impact upon my shopping and dining habits, I paid closer attention. I realised that these products were no more likely to contain milk (or whatever allergen one is seeking to avoid) than they ever had. The warning was simply the manufacturer’s (or perhaps the manufacturer’s legal department’s) way of limiting their liability.
No need for guarantees
Perhaps the most annoying thing about the food labelling scenario is that I had no need for a guarantee. I know that no such thing exists, that every meal contains the potential excitement of an allergic reaction. And, like many other people in a similar position, I manage my life (and the contents of my handbag) accordingly. I understand that the chef, manufacturer or chocolatier cannot supervise every single step of food growth and production from seed to table. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I don’t believe that certainty is attainable in any aspect of life.
I do also, however, understand that others may feel and act differently, and that manufacturers are acting in response to the worst possible scenario. Some people are all too ready to sue, and I am not suggesting by any means that mine is the only or best approach.
Pregnancy, normality and risk
But my own struggle with (what I see as) the self-preservation tactics of food manufacturers was brought very much to my mind by a woman who was very upset at some of the care she had received during her first pregnancy. Specifically, she was expressing her opinion that very few of her care providers were ever willing to tell her that everything was normal, or that it would be OK.
Instead, she felt that she was constantly met with caveats, with discussions and warnings of things that might go wrong, accompanied by an emphasis on how they couldn’t say for sure that anything was normal, because no one really knew what that was.
Her standpoint was:
‘I know they can’t guarantee anything; tell me I will 100% have a healthy baby or that I won’t have problems, I just want reassurance that this looks normal to them. They must know that? I don’t need them to give me a certificate saying it will all be OK and stay OK come what may, that I can hold them to. I just want to know that everything looks alright to the best of their knowledge right now.’
Why can’t we reassure?
I don’t know about you, but I find it rather sad that we have reached the stage where women don’t feel they can get the reassurance they are seeking because their caregivers are so busy stating the caveats. Most women know perfectly well that their experience may contain those metaphorical tigers. Many pregnant women dream about their fears and they don’t need us to point out the ones that are lurking in the shadows. If they want to talk about the tigers, then by all means let’s discuss them. But perhaps, like my friend above, they want to hear that most experiences don’t contain tigers, and everything looks really normal today. We surely cannot let our cultural focus on risk and caveats prevent us from declaring that something is normal? If we always have to note the possible existence of tigers, then we may end up living in a world in which every happy experience contains a potential tiger who is waiting to pounce on us.
There is a world of difference between making an iron-clad guarantee that something is 100% free from allergens, risk, or tigers, and saying that everything appears to be normal.
What needs to change?
Maybe we need to think more about the concept of caveats, guarantees, and reassurances, and what we are really saying in our actions, words and pamphlets. We could look for more ways to get these issues into discussion in practice and onto the agenda of childbirth education. Different people do have different perspectives, and I have only shared one view here in the hope of stimulating conversation.
There are a hundred different angles from which we could reframe our society’s fixation on risk management. We could face up to the tiger, visualise the tiger as a playful cub, cage the tiger, hug the tiger… I suspect it matters less whether we all agree that there is one right answer than that we identify the existence of the problem and understand that we can become part of the solution. And find ways to ensure that risk does not overshadow reassurance.