Allergy deaths highlight nutty labelling

A new law prompted by a girl’s death is sending shockwaves through the UK food industry. But, greater clarity will benefit the sector in the long run.

UK food manufacturers will soon be required to include a full list of ingredients on pre-packaged foods in a bid to better protect the country’s food allergy sufferers, following the shocking death of a teenager. “Natasha’s Law” – after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, a teenager who suffered a severe allergic reaction to a Pret A Manger baguette – was enacted in early September. Under the previous regulations, food prepared on the same premises in which it is sold does not need to carry a full list of ingredients.

“Overall I was left with the impression that Pret had not addressed the fact that monitoring food allergy was something to be taken very seriously indeed.”

Instead, food outlets only needed to post general allergen warnings instructing customers to ask a member of staff for help. Whereas food, such as sandwiches, salads and ready meals, made in factories and sold in supermarkets and convenience stores must have full labelling. But the old food safety law has been criticised for putting the responsibility on the consumer, rather than the producer, to find out if a product contains something that could harm them. “There was a gap in the food regulations that many people were unaware of until the facts relating to Natasha’s death became public,” says David Burke, Product Recall Line Underwriter at Hiscox London Market. “But that loophole threatened consumers’ safety, so it’s right that it should be closed. With hindsight, it’s obvious that pre-prepared foods should have a full list of ingredients so allergy sufferers know if they are safe for them to eat.” 

A problem waiting to happen

Natasha had mistakenly thought the baguette was safe for her to eat because it had no label on it warning of potential harmful allergens, the coroner at her inquest said. It also emerged that Pret had received a string of complaints about allergic reactions to its food before her death. Several of the victims required medical treatment and some were hospitalised. Sesame – which had been the culprit in a number of the cases and which caused Natasha to go into anaphylactic shock on a plane – was reportedly not listed among the ingredients that Pret staff would give to customers if asked what was in some baguettes. The coroner said the food chain’s system for monitoring incidents of allergic reactions was “inconsistent and incoherent”. He said: “Overall I was left with the impression that Pret had not addressed the fact that monitoring food allergy in a business selling more than 200 million items a year was something to be taken very seriously indeed.” Another woman died in October 2018 after reportedly suffering an allergic reaction to another Pret sandwich. Subsequent tests showed that a dairy-free yoghurt used in the product contained traces of dairy protein, according to Pret, a claim disputed by its supplier. 

“The new law will inevitably increase the food industry’s costs and risks.”

High street failure

Pret wasn’t alone. A BBC undercover investigation in November 2018 found that several of the UK’s biggest high street food chains gave out wrong or misleading information on allergens in their dishes. At Natasha’s inquest, a Pret executive said the company’s labelling and warnings were “appropriate” and denied that it had failed allergy sufferers. But the food chain later apologised and said it would start to list all ingredients on its freshly made food.

“Pret handled the crisis badly. It already knew it had a problem before Natasha’s death. Yet, it was on the back foot throughout, reacting to events instead of helping to shape them,” says Burke. “It’s more through luck than judgment that this hasn’t had a lasting impact on its business.”

Pret has announced a programme to improve its food safety, including changing recipes, additional training for staff and installing tablets in its shops to allow customers to check ingredients. The steps will cost the company between £9 million and £17.5 million a year, according to calculations by the Financial Times.

The law was changed after the teenager’s parents launched a public lobbying campaign. In government consultation on the changes, 70% of consumers surveyed said they were in favour of full food labelling. The Food Standards Agency, the industry watchdog, also backed the proposal. But the food industry has warned about the implications of such sweeping changes, with the head of the hospitality industry's association having said in the past that the new legislation is "difficult for some businesses to implement and potentially dangerous". 

Massive overhaul

The industry will have until the summer of 2021 to comply with the new law. It will be a huge challenge for all food businesses, from family-owned sandwich shops to the big high street retailers. “It will inevitably increase the food industry’s costs and risks,” says Burke. “Companies will need to closely manage their supply chains and production sites so they know every ingredient in every product they make. They’ll also need to manage the risk of cross-contamination of allergens in their kitchens.” The law change will also increase the likelihood of more food-related recalls, as there will be a greater chance of retailers mislabelling their products.

“I think it will benefit food companies in the long run.”

A shift in business model

Some food retailers might decide the most cost-effective way of managing their exposure is by centralising production. “The cost of auditing and monitoring each of their outlets might simply be too much for some,” says Burke. “But that’s a price worth paying to protect customers. And if a sandwich costs an extra 5p or 10p, then who would begrudge that?” But, the new law could ultimately help firms, by forcing them to properly address the issue of warning of potentially harmful allergens in their food. “I think it will benefit food companies in the long run,” says Burke. “A manufacturer should want to be confident that its products are safe, not just that they comply with the existing regulations. By protecting your customers you will also protect your brand and your balance sheet.”

The silver lining

The big winners will be the 2 million people in the UK who suffer from food allergies. Each year, 4,500 Britons are admitted to hospital suffering from a food allergy. Ten people on average die from them. "Before, consumers were forced to make decisions about what to eat without having all the facts. Soon, they'll be able to make an informed choice," concludes Burke.

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