Defra unveiled plans to overhaul food labelling laws last week, launching a consultation on four policy options to close the ‘loophole’ that allows food-to-go businesses to dodge the same strict requirements as supermarkets. It follows calls for a ‘Natasha’s Law’ in honour of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died from an allergic reaction in 2016 after eating a Pret a Manger baguette containing sesame seeds that weren’t listed on the label. So is it time for foodservice to face the same rules as supermarkets? Or is there still a case for exemption for the UK’s cafés and sandwich shops? 

The government’s consultation focuses solely on ‘pre-packed for direct sale’ (PPDS) food, such as sandwiches and salads made freshly in-store and packed on the premises. Currently, while pre-packed supermarket food must have full ingredient labelling, businesses selling PPDS foods can provide allergen information verbally or on in-store signs. And anecdotal evidence suggests some consumers assume no allergens listed on packaging “means there aren’t any allergens in it,” says FSA chair Heather Hancock.

The four policy options

Promote best practice. There would be no legislative change, just more activity to promote best practice - such as guidance and conferences for businesses, as well as consumer awareness campaigns.

Mandatory ‘ask the staff’ labels would be added to the packaging of food pre-packed for direct sale, and staff would be required to give supporting information orally or in writing when asked.

Mandatory name of the food and allergen labelling on PPDS food. Businesses would be required to label PPDS food with any of the 14 allergenic ingredients highlighted under EU law they contain.

Mandatory name of the food and full ingredient labelling on PPDS foods. Businesses would be required to label foods with all the ingredients within, with allergens emphasised, as with pre-packed food.

Mandatory measures

The government has proposed a range of options, from promoting best practice to mandatory full ingredients labelling, with the Ednan-Laperouse family campaigning for the latter. “Voluntary measures in the industry have not worked” and “a simple label” could have saved Natasha’s life, argued Michelle Victor, the lawyer representing both the Ednan-Laperouses and the family of Celia Marsh, who also died after eating food products purchased at Pret a Manger.

Tim Smith, former FSA CEO, now Pret’s food safety advisor overseeing an allergen policy review, agrees full labelling is the best approach. “The principle we have to apply is this: how can we make sure that every customer has the information they need to make the right choice for them? The best answer right now to that is full ingredient labelling,” he says.

It’s why Pret is trialling full labelling in several London stores, with the aim of a nationwide rollout by summer.

But while big chains have the necessary resources, many smaller cafés and sandwich shops would struggle, warns British Sandwich Association director Jim Winship. “Small businesses are already under pressure from rising business rates, pensions and wages,” he warns. “We believe many will struggle to afford the equipment needed to fully label, or have the technical know-how.”

Read more: Is Pret making sufficient progress with its allergy labelling overhaul?

Sandwich shops and cafés often have small work areas, making the risk of cross-contamination greater, while limited stock space means they sometimes top up ingredients from local stores. “It’s easy at rush times for mistakes to be made,” adds Winship. “Even well-run factories, with sophisticated checking systems, get labelling wrong sometimes.”

The FSA “absolutely appreciates” that some of the options would mean “additional regulatory burden”, says Hancock. “But you need to weigh that up with the consumer benefit.”

That’s why it’s important businesses and consumers respond to the consultation, she says. In the meantime, the industry shouldn’t wait to implement changes, she insists. “Everybody probably knows someone for whom this is a genuine risk. As people we are all capable of stepping up to the mark and doing all we can to improve that situation.”

Whether voluntarily now or under new rules later, stepping up on labelling seems an increasingly likely prospect for foodservice.