8th July 2024

Opinion: Recipes for disaster

The past few years have seen improved protections for people with allergies. But there is still much to be done to make unnecessary deaths a thing of the past

By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
Many of us are focusing harder on all ingredients, and asking tougher questions about where they came from and what they do

Anaphylactic reactions are cruel, and can render us powerless. In a few seconds you can lose someone who is otherwise in good health to an allergy they didn’t know about, or couldn’t defend against.

While our understanding of allergens and their effects is growing, the number of fatalities from food allergens, when compared to something like road traffic accidents, is still comparatively low at around one per two million people. But of course, that’s a statistic that means nothing if that one is your child. It also takes no account of the near misses, or lives limited by allergies through the fear that accompanies every unlabelled snack, every lunch on the go.

We’ve seen huge changes in the way that our food is labelled in the past few years, driven largely by the efforts of the Ednan-Laperouse family, who lost their daughter Natasha in 2016 after eating sesame seeds baked into a prepackaged sandwich. They have worked tirelessly to ensure that the fourteen major allergens are always listed on prepacked food, a move which could have saved Natasha’s life. Her allergies were apparent from an early age, and she knew exactly what she could and couldn’t eat.

Natasha’s parents Nadim and Tanya have fought and got results, but they’ve also met resistance. The labelling standard they’ve battled to make law can be expensive, and requires evidencing and documenting, a substantial burden on food businesses which are often start-ups and sole traders. It’s not always being done well, with lists of allergens too small to be meaningful or legible, and in some cases it simply doesn’t happen, as enforcement on food standards has taken the same hit as other regulatory services over the past decade. If no-one’s checking, it can be easy to assume it doesn’t matter that much.

So where do we draw the line on regulation? How many lives lost do we say is too few to warrant a costly new burden on businesses who may already be operating on tiny margins? Pushing back against progress will always be those forces which want to to sweep away bureaucracy, free up enterprise, and are quite happy to accept that there may be a cost to doing that, even in human life. But what those voices miss is that in addition to lives saved and changed, the allergen labelling effort forces food businesses to better understand what goes into their products in a way that we’ve been ignoring for years.

As a by-product of Natasha’s law, along with what science is starting to tell us about ultra-processing, and revelatory moments like the horse meat scandal, many of us are focusing harder on all ingredients, and asking tougher questions about where they came from and what they do. If we stop talking about bureaucracy and regulation and start talking about understanding, trust and confidence, the argument changes. It’s no longer a war between those who regulate and those who burn red tape, but a common quest to
know what we’re eating, where it comes from, and whether it will do us harm.

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