Better labelling needed to save lives says Nadim Ednan-Laperouse

Our daughter Natasha died after eating a baguette sandwich purchased at Pret a Manger, Heathrow Airport in July 2016.  The bread had sesame seeds baked into the dough that were not mentioned on the label.  This lack of information failed to give what would have been a life-saving warning as she was allergic to sesame seeds.  She died that day.

(Picture shows Nadim and Tanya with Natasha.)

Concluding the hearing into her death, coroner Dr Sean Cummings recorded a narrative verdict, finding that she had been “reassured” by the lack of specific warnings on the packaging.

My wife, Tanya and I are now campaigning for full ingredient labelling for all pre-packed food sold to the public.  The ‘loophole in the law’ as described by our coroner allowing food outlets not to have to give accurate ingredient labelling on their products has to be closed and we are passionate about making sure this change happens.

There are two million people living with allergies in the UK and the numbers are rising on an unprecedented scale and science has no idea why. There is a very real need for society to start taking this disease seriously and the time has come for the food industry to stop, listen and do what is right to gain the trust of millions of their customers.

Recent research from Mintel has found that almost half (48%) of Brits are unsure whether or not allergen labels are clear, and a further 15% have no confidence in them at all. Sixty-seven per cent of young people (aged 16 to 24) with a food allergy reported being aware of the legal requirements of food businesses to provide allergen information, but only 14% said they feel confident to ask for it and 14% reported not feeling confident at all.

Whilst some in the food industry have been arguing that full labelling will increase the potential for “human error”, we acknowledge that human error will always exist but it must not be allowed to be an excuse to do nothing when the lack of clear and accurate labelling is far more dangerous.

Others have complained that there will be an increased cost burden to operators and to this we say that profits should never come before the lives of customers. Those who sell foods which can be poisonous to many people, have a real responsibility to protect and inform with accurate and clearly given information.

The food industry also needs to stop defaulting to ‘blanket’ precautionary allergy labelling i.e., ‘may contain’.  The food industry has not come close to doing enough to provide their customers with clear information they so clearly need – choices that can mean life or death to a significant proportion of our society. The ’may contain’ approach should only be used where there isn’t a good manufacturing practice. This on its own should be a worry and a red flag to customers.

The food industry is very aware that eating habits and consumers’ approach to what they are eating has been shifting at speed in recent years and consumers are now demanding more clarity, honesty and transparency of information regarding the food they buy. They demand to know what exactly is in their food and not just the 14 Food Standards Agency named allergens.

The time has come for full information and transparency about what is in our food from the food industry. To do otherwise is simply a matter of delaying the inevitable. We are hoping that in the wake of Natasha’s death, the food industry will step up to the mark and support our call for full ingredient/allergen labelling.

Michael Gove said that he wanted to ensure that labels are clearer and that the rules for businesses are more consistent, so that allergy sufferers in this country can have confidence in the safety of their food. The law on labelling could be tightened as early as this summer with the introduction of Natasha’s Law. Four options have been put forward by the Government Consultation for labelling food which is made, packaged and sold on the same premises:

  1. Promoting best practice around communicating allergen information to customers
  2. Ask-the-staff labels with supporting information available for consumers in writing
  3. Allergen-only labelling
  4. Full ingredient list labelling

These are the four options and we believe that number 4, to list all ingredient/allergens, is the only way forward and our mantra is ‘Option four for Natasha’s Law’. The other “soft” alternatives are not an option in our minds.  These proposals could see the UK lead the way in helping people with allergies around the world as many countries with fast growing allergic populations are watching closely to see the outcome of this campaign.

The consultation is open until the 29th March and the response to date has been very good.  We would however encourage everyone with an interest in food labelling to complete the consultation questionnaire.

 Please respond through the online survey (Citizen Space) accessible via the following link:

https://consult.defra.gov.uk/agri-food-chain-directorate/consultation-on-amending-allergen-information

AAA RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVEMENTS NEEDED

Action Against Allergy fully supports the aim of Natasha’s parents to see all ingredients listed on food labels at every level of preparation and purchase. It is the ultimate gold standard, just as soon as all the practical difficulties achieving it could be overcome. If it became law it would almost certainly take a considerable time to put into effect. There are a number of improvements that could be implemented more quickly meantime and they would make a valuable difference in food safety for the consumer.

AAA recommends attention to the following:

  • Foods pre-packed for direct sale on the same premises should carry a label noting any of the 14 allergens included. Foods pre-packed elsewhere should carry a label providing full ingredients.
  • All eateries or take-away outlets should display notices inviting enquiry about allergens and any other ingredient. This is especially important for consumers allergic to ingredients not included in the list of allergens.
  • It is essential that ingredient suppliers to all food outlets where orders are prepared on the premises adhere to the requirements to provide full list of component ingredients (e.g. bakery to provide full loaf ingredients to the retail sandwich maker it supplies). It is equally imperative that the recipient caterer has systems in place which ensure all staff have easy access to this information.
  • We suggest that a formal staff training programme be devised by the Food Standards Agency and made a requirement for all outlets to use.
  • We strongly recommend that at least one designated fully trained member of staff is available at all times to respond to customer enquiry about allergens and other ingredients.

AAA is taking part in the public consultation. Please add your views in support before the closing date of March 29th 2019.