Changes to regulations on labelling 'pre-packaged foods for direct sales' – such as sandwiches
Alex Gazzola reports on the Food Standards Agency's response to the public consultation on food labelling precipitated by the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016, from eating a sesame seed in an unlabelled baguette from Pret a Manger, and her parents’ subsequent call for action.
Following the long public consultation in early 2019 on amending allergen information provisions for PPDS (pre-packaged for direct sale) foods, which was precipitated by the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016 and her parents’ subsequent call for action, the Food Standards Agency published a Board Paper, Food Hypersensitivity and the Government’s Allergen Labelling Review, on Friday 3rd May.
In it, they outlined the responses received to the four potential policy options proposed, which were:
Option 1: Promotion of best practice measures
Those responses showed a clear divide between individuals’ preferences and businesses preferences: with Option 4 being supported by 73% of individuals – but only by around 13% or 14% of businesses, public sector bodies and NGOs.
On the 8th May, the Food Standards Agency board met to consider the responses to the consultation and determine the advice to be given to ministers about acting on the outcome of the review.
FSA’s current direction, ambition and actions being taken to improve life for food hypersensitive people
Chaired by FSA Chair Heather Hancock, the first part of the meeting concerned the FSA’s current direction, ambition and actions being taken to improve life for food hypersensitive people, some of which was outlined in the Board Paper. Some of the additional key points made included:
* The expressed aim for the United Kingdom to become “the best place in the world for food hypersensitive people” was widely welcomed as the Board’s core goal.
* The extent to which food hypersensitivity impacts health was made clear: twice as many food-related hospital admissions occur because of food allergies than due to food-borne disease / food poisoning, and these cases may be under-reported, because they are often recorded by their symptom, not as allergy. The quality of life impact is greater for food allergy and coeliac disease than it is for all food-borne diseases.
* Of the 17% who have or believe they have food hypersensitivity, only 2% have a confirmed diagnosis, and therefore the vast majority miss that initial source of medical advice which the FSA is not in a position to fill. There needs to be a wider science-focused approach to plug gaps in the reporting and recording of food allergy incidents. It was noted that public allergen awareness has not risen in the last six months, despite the media coverage of tragic cases, and yet this is a widespread societal issue – it is on all of us to keep people with food hypersensitivity safe, which includes those living in food poverty or young and more vulnerable people.
* The issue of whether this is a food standards issue (and therefore under the umbrella of Trading Standards, who are known to be overstretched) or a food safety issue (and therefore under that of Environmental Health Officers) still requires clarification, with the latter option being supported. There was some discussion concerning the integration of allergens into the FHRS (Food Hygiene Rating Scheme) but concerns expressed that this would fundamentally alter the system, and still not supply what food hypersensitive consumers actually needed – which was factual information, not another ‘score on the door’ which could lead to confusion.
The allergen labelling review
The second part of the meeting focused on the allergen labelling review itself.
It was noted that consumers clearly expressed a preference for Option 4, but the question of whether this was in their best interests remained uncertain. It was obvious to all it would require significant work, and strong regulation with high non-compliance among food service providers, finding it too difficult to implement, ultimately would not help food hypersensitive consumers at all, potentially resulting in further incidents and restricted food options.
A key risk with regards to Option 3 (Mandatory 14 allergens labels) was highlighted: namely that it would permit providers to change non-top-14 ingredients without any need for a labelling change (and thereby risking the health of those hypersensitive to foods outside the 14). It was observed that this option was the one favoured by most public sector bodies, because it could be more easily checked and enforced. It held wider support among local authorities, and therefore would likely be implemented more quickly. Option 3 as an interim stepping stone towards eventual progress towards Option 4 was also suggested.
Countering this, the point was made that this might require one set of regulations for Option 3, followed by another set later for Option 4. Was Option 3 favoured by companies and bodies simply because it would be easier for them? Should the board not be more ambitious in aiming to fulfil its aim to make the country the ‘best in class’ for food sensitive consumers?
Decision? Option 4
Ultimately, with some caveats, it was decided upon that Option 4 (Mandatory full ingredients with 14 allergens emphasised) would be recommended by the Board, as it offered the greatest public health risk protection. Chair Heather Hancock emphasised the collective responsibility to prioritise the consumer, who had expressed a strong preference for 4, and warned that it both would take time, in order to avoid unintended consequences, and that it was not a perfect risk-free solution, as the potential for mis-labelling may increase. Impact assessments and more consultation with businesses would be required.
An aspect of Option 2, the presence of an allergy-informed member of staff, should not be sacrificed and must be retained too, it was stressed.
Putting it into practice
The next step announced would be to draft, circulate and eventually publish a letter to be distributed to ministers in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, recommending the legislation be worked towards. In the meantime, the board agreed to encourage industry to move forward to where they felt able to go.