The introduction of ‘Natasha’s Law’ should make life easier for the thousands of food allergy sufferers who need to check ingredients before eating. But is it realistic to expect small businesses to implement new labelling requirements, and how effective will this move be in protecting consumers? Simon Oldham, a postgraduate research student at Royal Holloway University of London, considers the implications.
The last year has seen an abundance of column inches, news reports and company statements dedicated to the issue of food allergen labelling and management. Sadly, it has taken a number of tragic allergen-related deaths to draw this level of attention to the matter. In particular, the issue of where responsibility should lie - with consumers, businesses or the law - has come under the microscope.
The promise of tighter legislation, in the form of so-called ‘Natasha’s Law’, brings hope not only of greater reassurance for those with food allergies, but also of increased clarification of where responsibility for allergen management should lie. Yet, even if such clarification emerges, questions will undoubtedly remain regarding whether businesses, particularly small businesses, will be able to cope with forthcoming legislative change.
Lack of information
As someone with a serious peanut allergy, I have long bemoaned the stance of many food retailers towards those with allergies. Years of less-than-helpful responses from food outlet staff, including “Well nobody can ever guarantee a product is peanut-free, so it’s up to you to take the risk”, “Why would there be any peanuts in that!?” or “Wait! A peanut isn’t a nut?” (it’s a legume), have often left me confused and frustrated.
This is not to mention the considerable anxiety that for me, and for many others with allergies or other food hypersensitivities, is synonymous with eating out in a restaurant, café or takeaway. Indeed, this was recently highlighted in a Food Standards Authority report which reported that, of those included in the study, 64% of people with allergies had avoided going out for a meal in the last six months.
Nevertheless, it would appear that one element of Food Allergen legislation is about to change in the form of new legislation known as ‘Natasha’s Law’. The public consultation on Natasha’s Law, which closed earlier this year, scrutinised the potential policy options intended to address a specific loophole within the current regulation for prepacked foods for direct sale (PPDS). PPDS refers to foods that have been packed on the same premises from which they are being sold (think Pret a Manger or any small sandwich shop where food is prepared and packaged on site).
The loophole addressed by the consultation relates to how businesses provide allergen information for PPDS. Under the current system, businesses are not obliged to provide allergen labelling for products. Instead, they are allowed to choose how they provide such information, for example, orally via a member of staff.
Now, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced that all food businesses must include full ingredients labelling on pre-packaged food. The legislation will apply to England and Northern Ireland, and is due to come into force by summer 2021.
Although such legislative bolstering will undoubtedly be strongly welcomed by those with food hypersensitivities, evidence suggests that there will be challenges associated with implementing and monitoring updated regulatory guidelines. These challenges are likely to be both great and to vary immensely depending on the size of the business, thus potentially damaging the efficacy of the legislation. Large businesses often face considerable difficulties regarding the implementation, monitoring and provision of assurance relating to food standards regulation owing to the complexity engendered by their considerable organisational footprints. For example, a recent BBC investigation found that major supermarkets and restaurant chains regularly give out unclear and even incorrect allergen advice on their dishes and products,.
Implications for small businesses
Conversely, although small businesses are often far more nimble than their corporate cousins, they frequently suffer from a lack of resources that will, in many cases, impinge upon their ability to adapt to regulatory changes relating to allergen labelling. The issues that many small business are likely to face as a result of new allergen labelling are numerous. These range from a lack of financial assets, staff time and knowledge relating to food safety, to a higher likelihood of rapid ingredient substitution occurring as a result of supply chain instability and a higher risk of allergen cross-contamination owing to smaller premises, and thus kitchen, sizes.
Overall, this has led to criticism being levelled at the outcome of the FSA’s consultation and proposed legislative change, with the British Sandwich & Food Association arguing that allergen labelling of PPDS foods would provide false reassurance, as it will be impossible for sandwich shops to avoid cross contamination.
Given these challenges that businesses of differing sizes are likely to face, it remains to be seen how effective Natasha’s Law will ultimately be in protecting those with allergies and avoiding future tragedies. Furthermore, as a recent National Audit Office report concluded, the UK food regulation system is highly complex, facing substantial financial pressures, and is hamstrung by outdated elements. This may well mean that ‘Natasha’s Law’ may not be the only legislation to emerge over the forthcoming years which will impact how businesses in the food industry consider those with food hypersensitivities.
Header image from rawpixel.com / Jakub Kapusnak