Allergen-related recalls hit a five-year peak in 2018/19. So what has happened over the past year, as supply chains have battled to cope with the Covid crisis? We analysed FSA data to find out for Allergy Awareness Week (24-30 May 2021).


It was, on reflection, peanuts compared to the pandemic that was about to engulf us. But in early 2020, before Covid-19 hit the headlines, UK supermarkets were grappling with a pesto crisis.

It began in December 2019, when supplier Saclà recalled 19 branded and own-label pesto SKUs amid fears they may contain traces of peanut. By January, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which shared an unnamed ingredients supplier with Saclà, had followed suit with recalls on their Own-Label pesto.

The incident – swiftly branded ‘Pestogate’ – left supermarket shelves bare of the much-loved pasta accompaniment for weeks. More importantly, it raised concerns over the ongoing risk of undeclared allergens in pre-packed foods, five years after strict new labelling rules were imposed by the EU to tackle the threat to public health. Not least because it came as analysis by RPC suggested allergy alerts had reached a five-year high in 2018/19, having soared since the new EU legislation came into effect in December 2014.

Thankfully, fears the pressures on supply chains during Covid could worsen the situation have proven unfounded. In fact, allergy alerts dropped dramatically last year, by over a third (38.67%), FSA data shows. During the 2020/21 period, there were 65 allergy alerts, versus 106 in 2019/20.

Industry efforts

It means allergy alerts were at their lowest point in five years during the pandemic. The FSA suggests this decrease was likely “due to product lines being narrowed during Covid-19”. But it also reflects the efforts of the food industry to improve their management of allergens, says the information team at the Anaphylaxis Campaign.

“It is great news for allergic consumers that product recalls have significantly declined over the last two years. We work closely with the food industry through our corporate membership scheme and know that the major retailers work proactively to ensure continuous improvement in their management of allergens,” they add.

“The imminent introduction of ‘Natasha’s Law’ in October 2021 to mandate allergen labelling on food pre-packed for direct sale has also raised the profile of allergens and the critical importance of getting it right which may have had a knock-on impact, raising awareness around allergen labelling in general.”

Still, the numbers are still arguably too high given the potentially fatal consequences that can arise from making a mistake on the label. “When a mistake is made, such as a product being placed in the wrong packaging or an imported product not having ingredients listed in English, this puts allergic consumers at great risk of having an allergic reaction if their allergen is not correctly listed and highlighted,” says the information team at the Anaphylaxis Campaign. “If they have a severe allergy, errors like these could even result in an episode of anaphylaxis, which in the worst-case scenario could be fatal.”

Even when labels are accurate, there is a lack of clarity and consistency that can cause problems for people suffering with a food allergy, adds Sarah Knight, CEO and founder of The Allergy Team. “Clarity is so important and retailers should really think about how clear the allergen labelling is,” she adds. “Sometimes the allergen labelling will be on the crease of the box and the crease gets crumpled up so you don’t see it. Or it is in tiny writing or not near to the ingredients.”

Big ambitions

The FDF insists the food and drink industry shares the FSA’s ambition to make the UK the best place globally for food hypersensitive consumers and is working hard to improve its allergen policies and procedures. 

“In practice this means companies continue to monitor and advocate for improvements to the management procedures in place to prevent cross-contamination and ensure accurate labelling,” says FDF’s food law, labelling and enforcement manager Alex Turtle. “The FDF has helped companies inform consumers by producing a range of best practice documents, for example to bring consistency to how gluten is labelled.”

However, “there is still more to do”, he admits. “We want to work with government to ensure we have world leading approaches to allergy risk assessments, as well as a consistent framework for ‘may contain’ labelling.”

Precautionary labelling is certainly something the food industry should seek to avoid where possible, argues the information team at the Anaphylaxis Campaign. “In our view, precautionary allergen labelling is often overused or misused and therefore lacks credibility. It has been seen on the labels of products we believe must be very low risk – for example, ‘nut traces’ warnings have even been seen on 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.”

Natasha’s Law: is the industry ready for full ingredients labelling?