Food allergies are growing at an alarming rate and, as more people than ever are eating ‘on the go’, so are the associated risks.
My wife Tanya and I know all too well of the dangers. We lost our 15-year-old daughter in tragic circumstances when she ate an unlabelled Pret a Manger baguette containing hidden sesame seeds and suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction.
Nothing can ever lift the searing, enduring pain of Natasha’s loss. But we are determined to do all within our gift to ensure no other family should have to go through what we have faced.
Natasha’s story has been well documented. In great part thanks to our amazing legal team and an excellent coroner, the authorities have been forced into action to change the laws governing pre-packaged food for direct sale (PPDS).
Environment secretary Michael Gove has backed us in our quest for Natasha’s Law, and only two weeks ago the Food Standards Agency backed the most rigorous option (Option 4), calling for full allergen AND ingredient labelling, in a Defra labelling consultation.
Pret a Manger, unsurprisingly given the damage to its brand, has been quick to announce it will implement Option 4 across all its UK businesses. It is critical that others now do the same.
Yet we have already seen the beginnings of an industry kickback. The British Sandwich & Food to Go Association has argued that full ingredient labelling on PPDS foods is too difficult and onerous.
Such a blatant rejection of Option 4 defies the view that when the needs of the consumer change, the industry must change too.
Could it be the food industry considers its corporate needs so big that it is empowered to argue that it can’t or won’t make change? Could it be that it is putting profit over the safety of consumers? Could the industry really believe there haven’t been enough allergic customers to date to warrant change?
To us, it looks like the answer to these questions is, ‘yes’. So, we ask: how many more people need to suffer allergies for this to change? Are more than two million people living with food allergies in the UK not enough?
The government’s consultation results were very clear: 73% of the public have called for full ingredient labelling.
There is good reason for this. The list of 14 allergens that currently need to be declared is outdated. People are becoming allergic to foods including chilli, garlic, bananas and peppers. With new labelling laws in the pipeline, we are about to prescribe how best to keep our allergic population safe for the next 10 years. This must reflect the latest knowledge.
The impact on small businesses is often cited as a reason not to move to full ingredient labelling. We don’t want small businesses to suffer, and the results of the Defra consultation show PPDS foods account for only a small portion of SME sales.
Innovative, successful businesses like Paul already sell fresh sandwiches without PPDS. Meanwhile, Pret itself has said full ingredient labelling is “operationally possible in small kitchens when proper care is taken”.
So it comes down to a matter of will – a willingness to put consumers’ safety ahead of a possible (and, at worst, tiny) dent in profit.
I vividly remember screwing down my child’s coffin lid and asking myself, “What father, what human being, could ever imagine such a thing?”
I ask now, “What kind of human being would ever object to putting an ingredient label on the food they sell if it might save a life?”