15th February 2023

Allergens: a matter of life and death

More than one year on from the introduction of Natasha’s Law, and in the wake of several tragic deaths, have businesses got the message that pre-packaged food must declare allergens?

By Richard Young
Despite all the publicity and the issues that have happened, I think there are still quite a few businesses that aren’t really aware of it
We’ve had a good response from businesses and have shared the links with some high-risk manufacturers

The introduction of Natasha’s Law in October 2021 placed a requirement on businesses to declare a full list of ingredients on food that is pre-packaged for direct sale (PPDS) wherever it is sold.

The law came about as the result of campaigning by the parents of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died in 2016 after suffering an allergic reaction to a sesame seed baguette purchased from a Pret-a-Manger at Heathrow Airport.

In theory, it means that consumers with allergies can be confident that they can buy takeaways, sandwiches and anything else that many of us take for granted, safe in the knowledge that any allergens have been clearly declared on the packaging. It places responsibility on businesses to be transparent about the ingredients of what they are selling, enabling consumers to make informed decisions.

In practice though, there remains confusion and a lack of understanding among many businesses about exactly what the law requires of them. According to David Pickering, CTSI Lead Officer for Food Standards, “The awareness of Natasha’s Law is really variable, because has an impact on smaller businesses that perhaps in the past haven’t really been too affected by food information requirements. These people are struggling to understand it.

“Local authorities are picking up on issues and trying to work with and support businesses, but it’s been very much dependent upon us coming across them through complaints. Generally speaking, where we can work with businesses we do, because we appreciate that they don’t necessarily understand what they’ve got to do.”

Pickering points out that among smaller businesses which – more than ever at the moment – are under pressure from rising costs and limited operating resources, there is often not a lot of time to keep up with changes to legislation – even when those changes could save lives.

“There are lots of allergen awareness resources out there, but it’s the reality of having the time and capacity to sit down and look at what they need to do,” he says. “If you run a small convenience store and you’re not a member of any trade association, and you sell sandwiches  that are packed on the premises, then you’ve got to really think about what the ingredients are. And that can take time.

“Despite all the publicity and the issues that have happened, I think there are still quite a few businesses that aren’t really aware of it. It’s probably improved, but I think compliance is still very patchy.”

Raising the profile
One of the people who has worked hard to push home the point that allergen awareness is not something that can be ignored is Dilys Harris, Senior Trading Standards Officer at Caerphilly County Borough Council. She led an innovative project, supported by CTSI and the Greater Gwent Food Group, to produce allergen awareness resources, including posters, checklists and online videos, to spread the message that failing to declare allergens can cost lives.

In an effort to get through to as many businesses as possible, the resources come in a range of languages, including English, Welsh, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Turkish, Kurdish, Cantonese and Mandarin.

“We’ve promoted it as far and wide as we possibly can,” says Harris – who won a CTSI Hero Award in 2021 in recognition of her efforts. “We’ve put it out on all of our press and professional platforms within my own authority. We’ve had a good response from businesses and have shared the links with some high-risk manufacturers, who are looking to incorporate it within their own systems and training, including during production stages on the factory floor.

“Environmental health colleagues are on board with it, too. And we have had very positive feedback from all sorts of professional colleagues, businesses and schools. We want to raise allergen awareness and we want to focus on education so that businesses get it right.”

Harris’s passion for the project came about in part after meeting the family of Megan Lee, a teenager who died after suffering a severe allergic reaction to nuts contained in a takeaway meal in 2016. Perhaps the most hard-hitting part of the campaign is a video portrait of Megan – a kind, fun-loving and popular girl whose life was cut tragically short.

Megan’s parents, Gemma and Adam Lee, say they got involved in the project because they wanted to bring forth something positive from their own personal tragedy. “It is the intention and the vision to spread these resources nationwide,” says Gemma Lee. “As much as we would like to rewrite our story – we’d love to wake up tomorrow, and for it to be a dream – it’s reality, and we don’t want somebody else to go through this.”

The Megan Lee Award category will be introduced at the CTSI Hero Awards in 2023 to recognise work that raises the profile of allergen awareness.

Counting the cost
As well as the challenges of raising awareness of allergens there is a risk that, as businesses struggle with supply shortages and increasing costs, they may switch to an alternative ingredient without realising that it has a different allergen profile from what they used previously.

“It is an issue, because there may well be an assumption that it is the same product,” says Pickering. “But if
it’s got a slightly different ingredient list, then that can be a problem. Again, it goes back to this idea of food businesses really understanding what they’re buying, and that the information should be available to them.

“It’s often in a last-minute shortage that businesses have to source something from a different supplier, or go out and buy something slightly different. On the face of it, they might think, for example, ‘Oh, it’s just mayonnaise, it’s fine’ – but that mayonnaise may well be made slightly differently from what they used before and have a different allergen profile.”

And, as ever in Trading Standards, a major problem is a shortage of available resources. As Pickering points out, “We can try and help those businesses, but there are resource pressures there too because we just don’t have the capacity to help all of the businesses that possibly need it. Unfortunately, problems often only come to light when we get a complaint or something goes wrong.”

As highlighted by the cases of Natasha, Megan and all too many others, the costs of something going wrong make this a particularly urgent issue, and one which no one can afford to take for granted. Do food businesses take it sufficiently seriously though?

“Across the food sector, there is a spectrum of understanding of food allergies,” says Pickering. “It can range from people thinking, ‘Well, it’s just fussy eaters’, through to people having an allergy themselves and really understanding the impact that this can have. Then there are some areas of this sector where there’s the belief that the consumer should protect themselves and they should be more responsible for their own allergy issue.

“There’s no uniform attitude towards this, and that’s the problem. We’re dealing with some businesses that haven’t got a clue what allergies are, through to people who actually take it seriously and just maybe need a little bit of support to deal with it. The more complex the product, the more difficult it becomes.

“But I think that’s also linked in to the willingness and capacity of the business to understand what they’re doing; you can have quite complicated products, but if the business is really on top of what they’re doing, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

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