Food allergy

The agency said it would be improving precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) through a more standardised approach

The FSA is looking to improve food hypersensitivity (FHS) labelling to increase consumer confidence in prepacked and non-prepacked items.

The agency said last week it planned to introduce a more more standardised approach for precautionary allergen labelling (PAL), offering more support for food businesses to apply PAL when necessary and improving allergen cross-contact risk management. 

A related paper presented to the FSA board at its quarterly meeting last Wednesday found most people with FHS wanted to see more standardisation in menu labelling – a suggestion that was broadly supported by board members.

However, concerns regarding pressures on businesses to deliver on this standardisation were reflected in the report findings, leading the FSA board to commit to more work on how to deliver the changes and the support that food businesses would require. The board added it would look to learn from the Irish system, where allergen labelling is already more uniformly applied. 

Additionally, the paper recognised “how far the FSA had come” since its strategy on food hypersensitivity was established in 2019. But it stressed the need to up the pace to implement new improvements.

FSA chair Susan Jebb echoed these concerns and said that while legislative changes typically take more time, the FSA would focus on earlier milestones to keep up “the sense of pace, energy and commitment in this direction”.

The board paper focused on three key themes: the importance of clear, consistent and accurate information about allergens; the challenge of finding solutions which can be implemented effectively and safely across different types of business; and the FSA’s decision not to recommend legislation changes at this point in time.

A key point of concern for board members was the lack of focus on including written allergen information on menus. The report had recommended that “proactively asking consumers about allergies is best practice” despite FSA research finding that “written information supported by verbal communication” is most trusted by those with food hypersensitivity.

But board members suggested not having rules on written information could lead to mistakes made by staff and was therefore too reliant on consistent staff training, which could be difficult to ensure considering the high rates of staff turnover in the food industry. 

In response to these concerns, Jebb said the FSA would carry out further research into the pros and cons of written information on menus. She said that while potentially beneficial to consumers, it came with a huge burden for businesses. She also raised that it could also lead to inaccuracies and inconsistencies in even the “best-run kitchens”.

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Additionally, the report authors outlined plans to implement an online structured training programme for staff throughout the food industry to improve behaviour and knowledge by December 2025 alongside specific training in the non-prepacked sector. 

Jebb said the executive board will consider the issues raised, consult with new stakeholders and present a new paper on the right risk management approach when it comes to written information, emphasising it was a “careful decision to make”.

Other items included in the paper were the importance of considering the non pre-packed sector separately and improving understanding of the causes and impacts of FHS reactions, both of which were not focused on by the board in discussions.

In plans for the future, the FSA said the evaluation of the implementation of Natasha’s Law, expected to start in autumn 2022, would be important in helping the association understand how written labelling can be better implemented. No legislative changes have been proposed by the FSA so far, however Jebb said this was not ruled out for the future and would be considered once all options had been taken into account.