10th July 2024

Special report: Food for thought

From allergen labelling to vegan food definitions and imports of non-compliant food, how can Trading Standards meet the challenge of ensuring that what reaches our tables is safe and accurately described?

By Helen Nugent
Freelance writer for JTS
There’s still a long way to go but progress is happening. Certainly, the speed at which Natasha’s Law was passed through parliament was second to none
It's the smaller local businesses who haven't got a clue because the only information they ever get is when we go to see them
I'm not convinced the training has got down to the grassroots level, that the staff actually implementing the policy understand the law that sits behind it
The spirit of the law we enforce today is about making those informed choices; you should have sufficient information to make an informed choice

‘A matter of life and death’ can sometimes be an overworked cliché, but when it’s applied to food labelling, it’s all too true.

In the UK, around two million people are thought to have a diagnosed food allergy. A recent study by GS1 UK found that more than half of those with food allergies have had an allergic reaction as a result of mislabelled or unclear food packaging. The research also discovered that nearly a quarter of respondents suffered multiple reactions, with seven in 10 allergy sufferers saying they felt nervous eating food not prepared by themselves or a family member.

And it’s not just the issue of labelling that’s of concern. Imports of non-compliant food and drink are problematic and pose real challenges to Trading Standards, as does the emergence of new food products such as plant-based ‘meats’, and the ways in which manufacturers choose to describe these new lines. Then there’s the lack of a legal definition for vegan food, which takes us back to the risks posed to people with allergies. Food — and how it’s categorised — can be a minefield.

Look at the labelling
Of the recent developments surrounding food labelling, perhaps the most significant is what is commonly known as ‘Natasha’s Law’. A gifted artist and talented figure skater with dreams of gaining a private pilot licence, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse was just 15 when she passed away in July 2016 due to a severe allergic reaction. A lifelong allergy sufferer, Natasha died after eating sesame seeds that were baked into the dough of a baguette. The label on Pret A Manger’s packaging didn’t include this ingredient, which was invisible to the naked eye. As Natasha was on a plane when she ate the product, she had no way of receiving urgent medical care. The subsequent inquest concluded that Pret A Manger’s allergy labelling was inadequate.

Natasha’s parents set up the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation and campaigned for increased transparency around UK food labelling requirements as well as a change in the law. Their dedication and resolve resulted in the Food Information (Amendment) Regulations, which stipulate that any business selling foods that are pre-packaged for direct sale (PPDS) must include a full list of ingredients on the product label, with an emphasis on allergenic ingredients. The rules came into force on October 1, 2021.

Natasha’s mother, Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, says: “We hear from people every day about how much Natasha’s Law means to them and what a difference it makes. There are so many people who have been locked out from being able to safely and with confidence eat this food. Now they can look at a food label and decide whether or not it’s safe for them.
“Natasha’s inquest and then the subsequent campaigning put food allergies on the map. People were talking about it. There’s still a long way to go but progress is happening.

Certainly, the speed at which Natasha’s Law was passed through parliament was second to none. It was very, very quick. And I think that really showed how important it was to get this law out.”

But what of the enforcement required for the legislation? The same rules apply to major high street chains making large numbers of PPDS food on the premises as to small independent corner shops.

David Pickering is one of CTSI’s Lead Officers for Food. He says: “I think that for the bigger nationwide businesses, it’s probably easier for them to deal with. But it’s the smaller local businesses who haven’t got a clue because the only information they ever get is when we go to see them, which is becoming increasingly less because we’ve got fewer people.”

Sampling work by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has shown that compliance is lower among small businesses. It tested 47 PPDS foods for various undeclared allergens including peanut, walnut, hazelnut, cashew, milk, gluten and fish. A total of 17 samples were found to have allergens present without the required labelling and, in addition, 10 samples were reported to have labelling issues. There were no failures in compliance with the sampled products sold by supermarkets or other larger food businesses.

Pickering says that, of the authorities he has been in contact with, enforcement action is very much complaint-driven.  “If you get complaints from consumers or businesses, because it’s an allergen issue it goes to the top of the priority pile. It’s similar to a product safety issue because it’s a risk to health.

“Most Trading Standards work these days is very much targeted. We don’t have the ability go down a high street and visit everybody. I’m not saying that’s the right thing to do anyway — and it’s not that we don’t want to do it, it’s more about having to use what we’ve got in the best way that we can.”

Pickering has noticed that complaints from consumers tend to be from people who are already aware of the laws surrounding allergens, often because they have allergies themselves or because their children have allergies.

In terms of enforcement, CTSI’s other Lead Officer for Food, Corinne Lowe, says that Trading Standards supports the legislation on labelling. But she agrees with Pickering that resources are a factor, as are the specific challenges facing local businesses.

“You also get the issue that when small premises start labelling ingredients, they might get their bread from one place one day and buy it from somewhere else another day, or the margarine or whatever, but the ingredients can be different. Then you’re looking at the cost of having to change the labels as well.”

Other Trading Standards Officers have found that larger businesses are “largely compliant” when it comes to PPDS, but there is a concern about staff training. “I think there is a general lack of acknowledgement and full awareness,” says Steph Young, CTSI Lead Officer for Animal Health & Welfare, and Team Leader for Food, Feed and Animal Health at her local authority. “I’m not convinced we’ve got the training right for some of our larger organisations at the moment. They’ve got the structures in place, they’ve got the policies in place, but I’m not convinced the training has got down to the grassroots level, that the staff actually implementing the policy understand the law that sits behind it.”

Of the various issues faced by Trading Standards, Young says they include labelling in a language other than English as well as imported delicatessen items sold on shop counters, meaning that many people won’t be able to decipher any potential allergens.

“And where we have had over-stickering that’s been put on to some of these labels, the over-stickering in itself is incorrect. So, a person can’t make an informed choice on whether or not that product is suitable for them.”

What’s on the menu?
When it comes to the hospitality sector, Young says that allergen complaints can mostly be traced back to the serving staff. “That’s what it boils down to. Nine times out of 10, it’s normally been a lack of training somewhere where it’s not been communicated correctly by the person who’s been taking the order if it’s been in a restaurant.”

A campaign to change the law related to allergy labelling in restaurants has been gathering pace in the past few years thanks to the concerted efforts of Owen Carey’s family. In April 2017, Owen had just turned 18 and was celebrating his birthday on a day out in London when he collapsed, having suffered a massive anaphylactic reaction following lunch at a Byron Burger restaurant. Despite explaining his allergies to the server and being assured that his grilled chicken burger was safe to eat, the chicken had been marinated in buttermilk. Owen only ate a small amount but, tragically, it proved fatal.

Currently, food businesses providing non-prepacked food, such as a restaurant, are required by law to tell customers if the food they provide contains any of the 14 mandatory allergens as an ingredient (either verbally or in writing). However, in December 2023, the board of the FSA agreed that it would like to see written allergen information mandated in the non-prepacked sector.

At present, the FSA is working to develop strong guidance for food businesses on how to provide written allergen information to help drive up compliance and make it easier for
people with a food allergy, intolerance, or coeliac disease to protect themselves when eating out.

In addition to providing written information, the FSA board has also acknowledged that there should be an expectation for a verbal conversation to take place between customers and food business staff, to ensure an added layer of protection for consumers.

Vegan and plant-based food
More recently, the FSA launched a campaign highlighting the risk of food labelled as vegan to people with allergies. In March, it published new research showing that 62% of people who react to animal-based allergens, or who buy for someone who is, are confident that products labelled ‘vegan’ are safe to eat, which is incorrect and may be putting them at risk.

While CTSI supports the FSA’s consumer campaign, its own recent policy report shone a spotlight on the potential dangers for allergy sufferers and the need for a legal definition for vegan and plant-based food, stating that the ambiguity around these terms can have disastrous and sometimes tragic consequences for those with allergies to animal-derived allergens.

At the moment, 4.5% of the UK population follows a meat-free diet, with 1.5% classing themselves as vegan. According to CTSI, 76.4% of consumers surveyed believed that food labelled as vegan should be completely free of anything derived from an animal. As things currently stand, there is no legal definition for vegan or plant-based food, which leaves the responsibility down to food businesses.

Among CTSI’s policy recommendations is a legal definition of vegan food, which would include legal thresholds for what constitutes animal-free food, an education campaign to raise awareness of what to look for on a label, and further stakeholder engagement to explore the steps required to produce updated guidance to be in line with international counterparts.

Jessica Merryfield is Head of Policy & Campaigns at CTSI. Referring to the policy paper, she says that it’s important to note that CTSI is not stating that veganism is wrong.
“What we want to make sure is where you say something is vegan, it truly is vegan, that there is no misleading at all, there’s no ambiguity and people aren’t abusing that term, and that consumers are empowered. We just want it to be safe, we want it to be legal, and we want it to be fair.

“We all have to eat, we all have to consume food, it’s the basic provision to be able to consume food and to live. The spirit of the law we enforce today is about making those informed choices, and you should have sufficient information to make an informed choice. If we don’t give them that information, then consumers cannot make an informed and sometimes safe choice.”

Merryfield explains that, because veganism is a term that isn’t legally defined, it is open to interpretation.“This can be a good thing because it allows people to make decisions themselves, but then there’s no consistency. From my experience, businesses need consistency and clarity to be confident about what they’re giving to their consumers, which then in turn gives us confident consumers.

“But you might have different standards across industry as to what certain terms like ‘vegan’ may imply.”

She adds: “And what does plant-based actually mean? Is it based in plants but may contain meat? It’s a very vague, ambiguous term with very different connotations, and every person will interpret it differently.”

Trading Standards Officers concede that government officials are reluctant to commit to strict definitions for food, preferring to allow for what they regard as personal choice. But there’s a difference between food that represents a lifestyle choice and food that is a safe choice.

“People are becoming ill and dying because the term ‘vegan’ isn’t defined and it is so subject to interpretation that it’s confusing for businesses and for consumers,” says Merryfield. “So, we are seeing an appetite from industry, consumers and regulators that we just need that clarity please. We just need to know, where are we drawing that line?”

Imports and compliance
While the prospect of a legal definition for vegan food is still uncertain, there is new legislation for imports. The Border Target Operating Model (BTOM) came into effect at the end of January, with the second phase introduced on April 30. A further phase surrounding safety and security declarations is scheduled to come into force on 31 October, 2024.

Under the long-delayed scheme, the new post-Brexit border checks mean that animal and plant products which are deemed ‘medium-risk’ or higher will face physical checks at the Port of Dover and the Eurotunnel. However, alarm has been previously raised over potentially dangerous or non-compliant food coming into the UK. At the beginning of 2024, Beverley Edmondson, Port Health Manager at Dover District Council and Port Health Authority, wrote in an article for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s EHN magazine that “we are seeing unprecedented quantities of illegal, non-compliant meat, unparalleled at any other point of entry”.

As far as Trading Standards is concerned, the new rules have had an impact, as Lowe explains.

“On the import side, it’s increased workload because businesses now are having to comply with all these import rules. We’re having to give advice or at least refer them to the relevant places to go. So, we’ve had quite a big increase in workload on that.”

Also, Trading Standards’ enforcement of imported food products is more focused on items that have already made it to market, including via
social media which, inevitably, makes them difficult to trace.

Pickering says: “Regarding imported food, I think we are starting to see a bigger increase in online sales through social media pages. And I think that’s where the food supplements thing comes in. You order all this stuff from America for personal use and then people think they can make a few quid by getting a few more and selling them on. And then suddenly you’ve got this small marketplace emerging.”

Lowe adds: “We had somebody on their personal Facebook page admitting that they were putting food supplements in the equivalent of birthday card envelopes otherwise they would get stopped at the border when they were being imported. So, whatever the supplement was, they made it look like a birthday card.”

She continues: “American imports in general have been a major issue — things like sweets, confectionery, drinks and breakfast cereal products. There are issues around the lack of traceability, in terms of where the suppliers are getting them from. The shops just see the latest craze and stock up on it. And they are reluctant to give you the traceability which is an offence in itself. But, by being persistent, we get it eventually.”

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