Food allergy labelling – what’s the deal?

Unless you’ve been out of the country or had your head down a well over the last couple of weeks, you will have seen the sad media coverage of the inquest into the death of 15 year old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse.  She tragically died in 2016, after a catastrophic anaphylactic reaction to sesame that was baked into a baguette she bought from a Pret a Manger store.  The presence of sesame, to which Natasha was allergic, was not labelled on the packaging of the item and after 3 visual checks of the packet (by Natasha, her best friend and Natasha’s father), she purchased the product and we are all sadly aware of what happened next.

The coroner ruled that Pret’s allergen labelling had been inadequate and Natasha’s parents are now calling for reviews to food allergen labelling, or Natasha’s Law, to ensure that the presence of a top 14 allergen is highlighted on a product’s packaging every time.

So why was the allergen (sesame) not listed on the packet in the first place?

Because, technically, Pret were not under any legal requirement to label the product individually.

What do food retailers/producers have to do in terms of labelling?

As part of EU regulations, they are legally required to highlight what are known as the top 14 allergens, if they are present in the ingredients of the final product.  Where ingredient lists appear on packaging, this is normally achieved by using bold, italic or different coloured text to denote an allergen.

The top 14 allergens are: Celery, Cereals containing gluten, Crustaceans, Eggs, Fish, Lupin, Milk, Molluscs, Mustard, Nuts, Peanuts, Sesame Seeds, Soya and Sulphites.

However, a provision was made in these regulations (which Pret chose to employ in its stores) which means that food outlets preparing and packaging fresh food on the premises do not have to physically label each individual product.  They can instead choose to keep the details of the product behind the counter, for example in an allergen folder, and answer queries on the presence of allergens verbally, using this information as a reference point.  In these circumstances, food outlets/retailers are required to clearly signpost customers to where they can find out allergen information.

Why is this not good enough and why do we need Natasha’s law?

We know that the number of people in the UK with allergies has increased substantially in the last 20 years and continues to rise.  Despite various hypotheses, the scientific and medical community does not yet have an agreed answer on why people develop allergies or indeed a cure for them.

Given that the number of people with allergies is increasing, it simply cannot be acceptable for us to have products on shelves that do not state what is in them anymore.  It just can’t.

For those reading who are fortunate enough to live without allergies, set the allergy issue aside for a moment: don’t you want to know what it going into your/your child’s body?  That argument, to me, is reason enough to justify the change to the labelling laws, but when you throw in the fact that an ingredient in a product could kill a person with allergies, surely this is a “no-brainer”?  Surely, as a society, we wouldn’t accept a retailer selling us a product with undisclosed rat poison in it on the basis that if we’d asked they’d have told us it was there, so why are we prepared to let the equivalent scenario happen with allergens?

Is highlighting of the top 14 allergens enough?

For me, it’s not.  Osh has serious allergies to foods that aren’t in that top 14 allergen list so for us, full ingredient lists on every product are the only way to go to enable us to make an informed choice about whether Osh can safely consume something.

We also need revisions to the regulations around what’s known as “precautionary allergy labelling”.  You know those “may contain nuts” or “not suitable for those with milk allergies” or “manufactured in an environment which handles egg” statements that you sometimes see on the back of a packet?  Those!

You see, at the moment food manufacturers and retailers aren’t legally required to put those on packaging at all.  And this makes life even more challenging for those living under the threat on anaphylaxis.  I’ll give you an example.

I picked up one of those “roast in the bag” chickens at a well known supermarket yesterday and it was coated in thyme, garlic and lemon rub.  Mmmm… it sounded delicious and a real mess-free time-saver!  I checked the ingredients list on the back of the packet (which incidentally was a lot longer than simply, chicken, lemon, thyme and garlic) and it didn’t look to contain any of Osh’s allergens.  But despite this, I still wasn’t in a position to assess whether it was safe for Osh to eat, because it could have been produced or packaged on a line/in an environment that also contained one of Osh’s allergens, but this information wasn’t on the packet.

And here begins every allergy sufferer’s crystal ball moment: is the information not there because the product is safe?  Or is it not there because the manufacturer isn’t required by law to put it there and so choose not to?  So, to be as sure as I could, I wrote to the manufacturer to check how the product was made (I’ve yet to hear back from them).

Conversely, some manufacturers appear to defensively label their products.  They add a sweeping “may contain milk or nuts” to every product they make, just in case, which means they unnecessarily alienate a section of their market that really wants to consume their product.  Incidentally, the regulations indicate that this type of labelling should only be used where there is a real risk of cross-contamination but given that manufacturers can choose to not warn of the risk at all, it seems a little farcical to say the least.

What needs to happen now?

The food industry as a whole needs to step up, not only because of horrendously bad press, not only because of possible legislative changes that will force it to do so, but because it feels an ethical obligation to its customers and recognises it has a duty of care to keep them safe when consuming food products.  Accurate labelling of full ingredients and honest warnings of cross contamination risks on packaging has to be the way forward in preventing further unnecessary deaths. Who knows food industry? You might even attract consumers who’d previously avoided your products due to lack of trust in what was (or wasn’t) written on the packet.

 

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