Almost five years after the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, Natasha’s Law comes into force this October. So is the industry ready?
It’s been almost five years since Natasha Ednan-Laperouse collapsed and died after eating a Pret a Manger baguette. The teenager went into cardiac arrest on a British Airways flight in July 2016 after suffering a major allergic reaction to sesame, which wasn’t declared on the packaging.
The inquest into her death in 2018 exposed a major loophole in UK food labelling law, which meant retailers such as Pret making food fresh on their own premises didn’t have to provide allergen information on the packaging. “In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken,” warned the coroner, Dr Séan Cummings, at the time.
In 2019, after a tireless campaign by Natasha’s parents Tanya and Nadim Ednan-Laperouse, then-environment secretary Michael Gove announced plans to close that loophole with Natasha’s Law. The legislation proposed making full ingredient labelling mandatory on all pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) food from October 2021.
The new rules, which will affect a wide range of businesses from cafés to major supermarket chains, were backed by the FSA. Heather Hancock, who was chair of the regulator at the time, described Natasha’s Law as an “important step forward in our ambition for the UK to become the best place in the world for people living with food hypersensitivities”.
But just months after the new regulations were laid down in parliament, giving the industry two years to prepare, Covid-19 struck. Sandwich shops and food-to-go outlets were forced to close or pivot to home delivery, while supermarkets and convenience stores had to overhaul operations to cope with panic-buying and the sudden shift to online.
So, with just six months to go until Natasha’s Law comes into force, is the industry on target to meet the new regulations? Or has the pandemic derailed the FSA and food industry’s efforts to make the UK a safer place for people living with food hypersensitivities?
What is Natasha’s Law and who does it affect?
Natasha’s Law was introduced in 2019 and comes into force in England on 1 0ctober 2020. Wales introduced its legislation in March 2020, and Northern Ireland introduced its legislation in May 2020.
It applies to products designated as ‘pre-packed for direct sale’ (PPDS). That is food packaged at the same place it is offered for sale to consumers, including pre-wrapped products kept behind a counter.
So it will potentially affect cafés and sandwich shops, as well as caterers, supermarkets and convenience stores with a food-to-go offer.
Under the revised legislation, PPDS food will need to have a label showing the name and quantity of the food and the full ingredient list.
Any of the 14 declarable allergens – celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, lupin, molluscs, mustard, sesame, peanuts, soybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites, and nuts – will need to be clearly emphasised (ie in bold and underlined).
Over the past year, the FSA’s primary focus has been managing the impact of two “historic events: the Covid-19 pandemic and the EU transition period”, its CEO Emily Miles admitted at the regulator’s Food Hypersensitivity Symposium in March 2021. However, “despite those enormous pressures of the last 12 months I am really pleased to say that the FSA has been able to make progress on our priority of making the UK a better place for the food hypersensitive consumer,” she added.
That included launching a ‘one year to go’ awareness campaign in October 2020 to highlight the changes and encourage businesses to check what they needed to do to prepare. The FSA has also redesigned its allergen pages, refreshed food allergy training, created an allergen checklist, and produced tailored info on PPDS foods. “During that time, these pages have been visited 470,000 times. That represents a 120% increase in traffic to the website to those pages compared to the previous year,” Miles told delegates at the symposium.
Now, the regulator expects businesses to do their part and have the right procedures in place to meet the new labelling requirements come October.
“The FSA is very conscious of the impact Covid-19 has had on the food industry and a lot of our efforts and focus have been on supporting the immense changes and impact it has had,” says Sushma Acharya, head of policy and strategy for food hypersensitivity at the FSA. “However, the safety of food hypersensitive consumers is a key priority for the FSA as it is for food businesses in the UK.”
Improving the safety of customers has certainly been a priority for Pret, which faced major scrutiny in the wake of Ednan-Laperouse’s death. After coroner Dr Cummings slammed its allergen policies as “highly inadequate”, the chain spent £20m on a complete overhaul of its food safety procedures, including rolling out full ingredient labelling across its stores in summer 2019.
“Three years ago, when we first started to pilot full ingredient labelling, we applied three simple tests: first, do customers, particularly those with allergies, feel it gives them the information they need to make the right choice? Second, is it operationally possible? And finally, is the extra cost manageable?” says Clare Clough, Pret’s UK MD. “What we learned was the answer to all three questions was yes.”
On the advice of its food safety adviser, former FSA CEO Tim Smith, Pret decided to ‘open source’ its allergen procedures to help others make the necessary changes at pace. “We have brought together lots of others from across the industry to share our experience and insights on our policies,” says Clough.
“We’ve done this at a senior level, bringing together CEOs from across the food industry to share the learnings from our labelling pilots, and also at a technical level through what we call the Industry Exchange Group. We’ve also kept in touch with the FSA, government and others and offered to share our experience and operating model with them to help other food businesses adapt.”
Pret’s high street rival Starbucks has already implemented the necessary changes to comply with Natasha’s Law, which will only apply to a small number of its stores, while Greggs is set to roll out full ingredient labelling across its store estate by September.
“We have been working on the implementation of full ingredients labelling on products pre-packed for direct sale and we started to trial this in shops before the pandemic,” says a Greggs spokesman. “By early June, this enhanced labelling will have been implemented in approximately 20 shops, and this will be extended to 100-plus shops during the summer. We will roll out full ingredients labelling on all pre-packed products for direct sale in all our shops in early September 2021.”
The Co-op already provides “full allergen information on the packaging and shelves for our PPDS in-store bakery range,” says a spokesman. “Ahead of the new regulations coming into effect in October 2021, we are upgrading our labelling to provide further clarity and transparency by adding full ingredient information to our in-store bakery packaging,” he adds.
Tesco and M&S are both rolling out the necessary changes ahead of the deadline. “We already provide our customers with allergy information for products packaged in store and in 2019 began the process of expanding this to full ingredient labelling,” says an M&S spokeswoman.
“We have implemented a significant investment in equipment and technology in our product management system, along with comprehensive training across our food group, and plan to be 100% compliant ahead of the government deadline.”
Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose similarly say they will be compliant by October. “We’ve been working continuously since the legislation was published to ensure our products, systems and processes affected are updated accordingly,” says a Waitrose spokeswoman. A Sainsbury’s spokesman adds: “Safety is our highest priority and we are reviewing all labelling to make sure we are compliant by later this year.”
Lack of awareness
With big chains and supermarkets involved in the consultation process, British Sandwich Association director Jim Winship says he would be “surprised” if any weren’t on track to meet the new requirements by 1 October 2021. It’s a different matter, though, for smaller independent retailers, many of whom have been shut for large parts of the past year.
When the BSA conducted a quick survey of its members back in January, it found over a third (36%) weren’t aware of what the new regulations meant for their business. And even those businesses who are aware of the changes are likely to be behind on implementing them as a result of the pandemic. “Everyone has been focusing on surviving rather than looking forward to things like allergen labelling,” says Winship.
Full ingredient labelling is a particularly daunting task for small sandwich bars and cafés, which have less control over their supply chains than supermarkets. “A lot of these places will buy from cash & carries or supermarkets and things like mayonnaise might change day to day because they can’t get the one they usually use – and that can change the allergen content of what they are making,” Winship adds.
“Everyone has been focusing on surviving rather than looking forward to things like allergen labelling”
Convenience food retailers and caterers face similar challenges. “We have seen a lot of concern from our customers. Natasha’s Law has the potential to have huge ramifications, fundamentally changing the way people operate,” one education specialist foodservice wholesaler told The Grocer. “School catering will be under particular scrutiny. We are working very hard to ensure all of our customers are prepared. What we need is for suppliers to be on board helping us with this.”
One of the biggest concerns is whether businesses will be able to get up-to-date information on allergens in product ingredients. It’s a problem wholesalers are trying to solve with technology. “We aren’t worried about the larger companies understanding Natasha’s Law but we do worry about smaller producers,” says the source. “We feel it’s our job to ensure they are aware of the changes coming in. Ideally we want technology to solve this problem.”
The perils of precautionary allergen labelling
When it comes to labelling food with allergens, one of the biggest concerns for the industry is the potential for cross-contamination.
It’s tempting, therefore, to attempt to minimise any risk by using blanket ‘may contain’ statements.
However, this would not only reduce choice for people with a food hypersensitivity, but could also be dangerous, campaigners warn.
“In our view, precautionary allergen labelling is often overused or misused, and therefore lacks credibility,” says the Anaphylaxis Campaign information team. “It has been seen on the labels of products that we believe must be very low risk – for example, ‘nut traces’ warnings have even been seen on the labels of bottled water.
“Because precautionary allergen labelling lacks credibility, it is often ignored. In the case of some products, where the risk is real, this could be dangerous.”
Sarah Knight, CEO and founder of The Allergy Team, agrees. “If there is a genuine cross-contamination risk it absolutely should be labelled, but blanket cross-contamination labelling is not the way forward,” she says.
The FSA is aware of the potential pitfalls, and has identified precautionary labelling as a priority to address in the year ahead. “We think it’s really important that consumers with food allergies and other hypersensitivities are not excluded from our very rich culture,” said Rebecca Sudworth, FSA director, SRO food Hypersensitivity Programme, at the regulator’s recent symposium.
The Anaphylaxis Campaign advises that food and drink suppliers and retailers should only use precautionary allergen labelling “after a thorough risk assessment and when the cross-contamination risk cannot easily be eliminated”.
One potential solution is Erudus, a platform similar to the GS1 database used by supermarkets. Currently, 144 wholesalers are on board, including Booker and Brakes, who mandate their suppliers to upload allergen information. It is hoped Erudus, which is currently used by around 250,000 caterers, could become a ‘one-stop shop’ for convenience retailers and hospitality outlets.
“The industry needs to be doing more to get ready for Natasha’s Law – food businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic and are still trying to bounce back, which means many haven’t been able to prepare as early or as thoroughly as they’d like for the new legislation coming into play in October,” says Erudus COO Jon Shayler. “More education and communication is required, and at Erudus we’ve been working hard on both fronts to give our customers the support they need.
“Most importantly, we’ve made a number of updates and additions to our Recipe Builder tool that will make it easier for our users to comply with Natasha’s Law with as little friction to their businesses as possible – such as automatically generating a printable, rolled-up ingredient declaration in QUID (Quantitative Ingredient Declaration) format.”
However, both Erudus and GS1 are reliant on supplier collaboration. The Federation of Wholesale Distributors believes that in order to comply with Natasha’s Law, the industry needs a mandated central database, maintained by suppliers, of all food product allergen ingredients, which wholesalers can use to ensure consumers receive accurate information.
“It’s vital that retailers and caterers have access to a full set of allergen data to be able to implement Natasha’s Law, and wholesalers play a key role in facilitating that,” says FWD CEO James Bielby. “FWD is in regular dialogue with the Food Standards Agency on the practicalities of the law for the supply chain, and is bringing the industry together to collaborate on how to best to provide information to food business operators.”
With no central database yet in place, it’s undoubtedly going to be a struggle for some operators to comply with the new rules. Not least because many small businesses will also face challenges with cross-contamination, warns Winship. “You might have a cramped kitchen making sandwiches using ingredients, some of which may contain allergens,” he adds.
“The label gives assurance to the consumer that the product doesn’t contain a particular allergen, but there might be traces of it in there due to cross-contamination because the kitchen environment is so tight. That’s what we’re most worried about.” He’s got a point. Even big food manufacturers and retailers occasionally suffer with cross-contamination issues. However, smaller businesses can protect themselves, and their customers, by thinking about how they communicate potential risks, suggests Sarah Knight, CEO and co-founder of The Allergy Team. “Maybe put an additional label on packaging saying ‘please speak to us about this if you have a severe allergy so we can tell you about any potential cross-contamination risks’, so you can still encourage the conversation,” she says. “The most important thing is really clear, accurate communication.”
Staff training will also be vital for retailers and foodservice operators to comply with Natasha’s Law safely, says George Macfie, food technical manager at food safety business Bureau Veritas. “When the October changes come into effect, it will be important for businesses to not only implement a robust plan but to communicate this throughout the business. Lack of communication could result in information being misunderstood or misinterpreted.”
Regardless of the challenges, people with food allergies deserve to have the information they need to make an informed decision, insists the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, which was established by Tanya and Nadim Ednan-Laperouse in the wake of their daughter’s death to increase awareness of food allergies and raise funds for vital medical research.
“Food allergies are a food industry issue, so we are pleased to hear that many of the big supermarkets and café chains in the UK are on track or already meeting the requirements of Natasha’s Law,” says Tanya Ednan-Laperouse.
“Supermarkets and cafés, big and small, have a key role to play in ensuring everyone is able to consume food safely. The steps they are taking will support and give confidence to the two to three million people with food allergies in this country when buying food pre-packed for direct sale.
“However, we are very concerned that so many smaller, independent food retailers are not even aware of Natasha’s Law. Thousands of people with food allergies buy food from these shops and cafés every day.
“It is imperative all food retailers meet the requirement of full ingredient labelling on pre-packed food made on the premises. We urge all food retailers to take action now to make sure they are ready for Natasha’s Law in order to keep people with food allergies safe and prevent avoidable and potentially life-threatening allergic reactions.”
Food hypersensitivity in the UK
The tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse (pictured) has highlighted the growing danger of food hypersensitivity, which now accounts for more hospital admissions than foodborne disease, according to the FSA. On average, 10 people will die each year in England and Wales as the result of a food allergy.
Speaking at the FSA’s Food Hypersensitivity Symposium in March 2021, CEO Emily Miles pointed to a BMJ study that found hospital admissions for food-induced anaphylaxis had increased by around 6% a year, or threefold, from 1998 to 2019.
It’s a trend that continued in 2020, suggests an impact report published by the Anaphylaxis Campaign. It found hospital admissions for anaphylactic shock in adults surged by 27% to 4,756 in 2019/20, up from 3,751 in 2018/19. With the data running from March to March, the group says it is “too early to tell” if the current pandemic has had any impact on hospital admission figures.
It’s why it’s crucial allergen sufferers have access to accurate information about the food they are eating, campaigners argue.
Natasha’s Law will go some way towards providing that information, although there is still a glaring omission, argue the family of Owen Carey, another teenager who died in 2017 after eating a chicken burger that had been marinated in buttermilk. They want to see a change in the law that compels restaurants to state the allergens in their dishes, specifically on the face of the main menu. This would “eliminate the risk that exists at the point of order when a waiter does not fully understand, or is not trained enough to process, or simply ignores the customer’s concerns about allergens in each dish,” they argue.
Having delayed their campaign in the face of the Covid pandemic and Brexit, Carey’s family have launched a petition and wrote to Defra in April. They hope to secure the support of a major restaurant operator, plus a peer or MP.
Natasha’s Law: is the industry ready for full ingredients labelling?
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Natasha’s Law: is the industry ready for full ingredients labelling?