Three allergen-related deaths have appeared in the news in the past fortnight, bringing the topic of labelling to the forefront of operators' minds. But while it may be the best option for consumers, it could cause huge problems for small businesses. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports
Pressure is mounting on large sandwich chains to overhaul their approach to displaying allergens following the deaths of three people.
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, died in 2016 following an allergic reaction after eating a Pret sandwich. During an inquest last month into her death, coroner Dr Sean Cummings said that allergen information relating to the baguette was "inadequate in terms of visibility". In the wake of the high-profile inquest, the sandwich chain announced plans to list all ingredients - including allergens - on its freshly made products.
It is a move that some have argued should have come sooner. In the year before Ednan-Laperouse's death, nine other people had serious allergic reactions related to Pret products, the inquest heard.
It has since been reported that a second customer is believed to have passed away in 2017 after eating a vegan sandwich contaminated with milk protein bought from a Pret store in Bath - a claim disputed by the chain's dairy-free yogurt supplier Coyo. In a third allergen-related death to hit headlines, a court last week heard that Megan Lee, also 15, had an asthma attack after eating a takeaway that she and a friend ordered online in 2017 and later died in hospital.
All these incidents took place after allergen labelling legislation designed to prevent such occurrences came into effect in 2014.
But Pret has not broken any rules. As they stand, the UK's Food Regulations 2014 do not require a specific allergen label be attached to food that is prepared on-site before sale. The 'pre-packed for direct sale' classification states that information about 14 listed allergens must still be provided, but a business can choose how to share it with the consumer, whether it's on a sign or menu, or even orally through a conversation with staff. Are the rules around allergen labelling fit for purpose?
Allergy UK welcomed Pret's decision to fully label its products. "We believe individual product labelling is the most effective way of communicating vital information for people with allergies," the charity said in a statement.
It is highly likely that other food companies will follow in Pret's footsteps in voluntarily providing allergen labels on freshly prepared products. That's according to Dominic Watkins, global head of food group at legal business DWF, who added that those who don't might not have a choice in the matter for much longer.
Following the inquest, environment secretary Michael Gove said he had instructed civil servants to investigate a law change. The following day prime minister Theresa May called for a review of food labelling laws and responsibilities of "individual companies".
But Watkins warned that removing the 'pre-packed for direct sale' classification from regulations will do little to remove the potential for "human error", while increasing the cost burden to operators and ultimately customers.
"Such changes do not actually materially reduce the risk when compared to a member of staff providing allergen information orally, they just change the delivery method. The potential for human error sadly still exists, as the large number of allergen mislabelling related product recalls of packaged goods listed on the FSA website demonstrates," he said, alluding to the 70 separate allergy alerts posted in the first nine months of this year alone.
"Yet this change will substantially increase the cost of such goods, due to the additional processes of producing and applying the correct label, leaving consumers with a meatier lunch bill. This comes at a time when customers are already experiencing rising costs and Brexit leaves substantial prospects of further price rises."
David Pickering, trading standards manager at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, suggested an alternative approach: "The 'pre-packed for direct sale' definition was designed to help small businesses where customers could talk to the person who had made or packed the food. How often is that likely to happen in the current food supply marketplace?
"The way forward may be to have compulsory indication of allergen ingredients on all pre-packed food and then see how that works before jumping to full labelling."
Dr Lisa Ackerley, food safety expert at UKHospitality, agreed that a careful review of allergen control was needed. But with so many different types of foodservice business in operation she warned against a knee-jerk change in legislation.
Allergen labelling on packs is "relatively straightforward" where standardised foods are produced, she said, but for catering operations where ingredients change daily, the burden of full allergen labelling on the product - "which might have to be done by hand for each sandwich" - would be high.
"As a bare minimum, it is not unreasonable for wrapped food to have an 'ask about allergens' sticker in a bright, potentially standardised colour," she added. "This is particularly important due to the fact that some customers are allergic to foods not on the list of 14. They need to be encouraged to discuss their requirements with the business. A two-way dialogue is by far the safest response in catering, with guests engaging with the caterer and then discussing their requirements with the business."
So do customers know to ask? Research by the University of Bath on behalf of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) suggests that they do.
The study, conducted between March 2014 and July 2017, found that post-legislation, 70% of customers with food allergies said they feel more confident in asking staff for allergen information, while more than half (56%) value staff more as a source of information.
But that confidence appears to grow with age. Research by the FSA in partnership with Allergy UK (AUK) and Anaphylaxis Campaign (AC) found that while 67% of young people (aged 16 to 24) with a food allergy reported being aware of the legal requirements of food businesses to provide allergen information, just 14% said they feel extremely confident to ask for it. Another 14% reported feeling not at all confident.
In response, the FSA worked with AUK and AC to launch the Easy to Ask campaign, which aims to empower young people to ask food businesses about allergens when eating out and at the same time remind businesses to be upfront about the provision of accurate allergen information, particularly with this vulnerable group.
The study also found that more than half (60%) of the young people polled had avoided eating out in the previous six months due to their food allergy or intolerance, highlighting a lack of confidence that a UK-wide shortage of EpiPens - the market-leading adrenaline injection pen used to treat severe and life-threatening allergic reactions - will do little to help.
But in the same poll of young people, 59% said they tended to visit the same places when they go out, which suggests that businesses that strive to inspire confidence in customers with allergies or intolerances have an opportunity to generate valuable loyalty.
The figure was echoed in a University of Bath study. It found that food-allergic and intolerant customers said that improved confidence in allergen information post-legislation led them to eating out more frequently and that they were more likely to return to and recommend venues with staff that were helpful and attentive about their allergen needs.
"Businesses have a duty of care to people with food allergies and intolerance, and many businesses have made real progress in how they achieve this," said FSA chairman Heather Hancock. "What these awful cases show us is that larger food companies with high sales volumes can choose to do more by providing upfront, clear and visible allergen information on their products to keep their customers safe."
Allergens in numbers
•4,500 UK hospital admissions a year from food allergy
•10 food allergy deaths per year
•1 in 4 people surveyed said they or a relative had suffered a reaction eating out
•8% of children affected by food allergies or intolerances
•2% of adults affected by food allergies or intolerances
Source: Food Standards Agency