New research conducted by campaign group Unchecked.uk and the Times has revealed that nearly one in five food samples taken by inspectors in England, Wales and Scotland contains at least one undeclared allergen.
Of the 6,602 food samples tested specifically for allergens by local authorities between 2016 and 2018, 1,212 (18.4%) were found to contain traces of allergenic substances which could prove harmful, or even fatal, to allergy sufferers. In each case there was no indication of the allergen’s presence in the food product.
Peanuts formed the majority of undeclared allergens present (328 samples), followed by gluten (223), egg (203), and milk (159).
Of 71,474 total food samples taken, 15,591 (22%) were found to be unsatisfactory in some way. Most of these (8,791) were found to have ‘labelling and composition faults’.
The study also found that, during the three-year period examined, the number of food samples tested for allergens fell by over a quarter, with 20 councils taking no allergen samples at all.
According to Emma Rose, Project Lead at Unchecked.uk, “These figures show that there is a real postcode lottery when it comes to food sampling. In the worst-case scenario, unknowingly consuming an allergen can prove fatal – and that’s why the law requires food businesses to tell people what allergens their food contains.
“But regulation is only as good as the enforcement that underpins it. And it’s clear that in the case of UK food law, the enforcement gap is looming large. Cuts in staff and funding have stretched regulators to breaking point, and the fall in enforcement activities is putting lives at risk.”
According to the Food Standards Agency, around 10 people die from allergic reactions to food every year due to undeclared allergenic ingredients. Reported allergy incidents resulting from incorrectly labelled packaging have increased steadily in recent years, raising concerns about whether local authorities are receiving, and allocating, sufficient resources to adequately discharge their food enforcement responsibilities.
There are now just three local authority staff in post per 1,000 UK food establishments, with food law enforcement staff numbers falling by a third since 2009.