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Changes to Food Labelling Requirements following “Natasha’s Law” Coming in October 2021 – 8 out of 10 Businesses Not Ready – Are You Ready?

This blog post has been written and prepared by an anonymous Food Inspector.

Background

It has been an existing legal requirement for all food businesses to supply safe food (Article 14 (1) of REGULATION (EC) No 178/2002). It is an offence under Regulation 4 of the General Food Regulations 2004 if a business supplies unsafe food in Great Britain.

Under this legal requirement, food with undeclared allergens is classed unsafe for those with food allergies as the food information on the label will not have the “information generally available to the consumer concerning the avoidance of specific adverse health effects from a particular food or category of foods” (Article 14 (3)(b) of 178/2002)

Allergy UK estimate that between 1-10% of the population in the UK have a food hypersensitivity (The term “Food hypersensitivity” is an umbrella term used to cover food allergies (an immune reaction) and food intolerances (digestive upset)).  A lack of understanding and training in food business is the main challenge in ensuring safe food is supplied with the smaller and medium sized food businesses, such as small sandwich shops, hotels, restaurants and takeaways, being identified as the highest probability of having minimal to no food allergen awareness. 

Currently, we are facing two unprecedented events with the global pandemic and the UK’s exit from Europe. Both are highly likely to have a huge impact on our food production and supply. These two matters raise the possibility that suppliers, and the products supplied, will change to meet demand. Whilst ingredients may change, for food allergy sufferers the risk doesn’t. 

Food law was changed in December 2014 to raise the importance of giving accurate allergen information throughout the food chain especially in relation to allergens, to empower and assist the (end) customer to make an informed choice in what to eat. Despite these changes, a legal exemption, designed to allow flexibility for the smaller, independent food producers was legally used as a loophole by big businesses to reduce the amount of information they had to give on food sold through their networks of shops. This exemption was designed to reduce burdens on the smaller business, who made and sold their food from the same premises, vehicle or market stall, direct to customer. The rationale behind this was that those who make the food will know what is in it and the customer can ask them directly. In big, multi outlet businesses this knowledge can be lost as there is a gap between those who make the food and those who sell it. 

What is Natasha’s Law?

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse had food allergies and was careful about the food she ate. On 17th July 2016, she purchased a baguette from “Pret-A-Manger” at an airport, to eat on the plane. As the law didn’t require sandwiches prepared on site to have allergen labelling, she didn’t know that the baguette contained sesame, to which she was allergic. Upon eating it, she had an anaphylactic reaction and died shortly after.

Brought about by a campaign by the parents of Natasha, hence it being colloquially termed “Natasha’s Law”, the Government ushered in a change to the current food information and labelling laws. This law change was brought in on 2019 and comes into force on 1stOctober 2021.  There has already been a lot of coverage on this in general and industry press, nationwide and this is set to continue. However, despite this, it is estimated that 8 out of 10 food business are not prepared for the law change when it comes in 

What’s changing?

All foods sold pre-packed for direct sale to the customer will have to have full ingredients listed on them, with allergens emphasised within that list (see more info here). This affects all food products prepared and packaged on the same site and includes food sold prepared and packaged on site by that business and sold via their own market stall(s) or delivery van(s).  It does not apply to food sold from a “distance” e.g. online. 

Why is it important?

For Businesses:

This is a major change and it is likely the smaller business will struggle with the changes and to implement them effectively. Combined with the impact of the pandemic, a lot of technical staff are likely to have been on furlough and would not have been able to take advantage of the 2-year transition period to undertake the changes necessary. For a lot of businesses, the changes will pose a huge challenge and something they are unlikely to have ever had to do before. This is a big responsibility to accurately and correctly communicate the allergen risk to their customers, which will include food allergy sufferers. If ingredients change due to supply chain issues, the cost to businesses of having to change labels could be expensive, which may force businesses to take short cuts and/or not change them, which could put food allergy sufferers at risk. 

In addition to this is research which shows many businesses still do not understand and accurately use Precautionary Allergen Labelling (“PAL”), and therefore use them inaccurately or not at all, resulting in further confusion and, on occasion, allergic reactions being suffered due to this inaccurate information. For example, “May Contain” statements are ineffective as they do not give clarity, only uncertainty to the customer. 

For Customers and food allergy sufferers: 

This should allow those with food hypersensitivities to feel more confident and empowered when eating away from the home. However, a lot of people with food hypersensitivities may still be cautious and feel their options to eat away from the home environment are still limited if businesses are not able to confidently and accurately give food allergen information.

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