Clock ticking on new allergen laws

The Food Standards Agency has published fresh guidance to help foodservice businesses adhere to stricter allergen labelling rules for pre-packed foods. Nick Hughes has the lowdown for businesses.

What’s new on allergens? New laws for England, Wales and Northern Ireland mean that from October 1st 2021 all food pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) will be required to carry a label containing an ingredients list and the allergens emphasised on the list.

Why is the law being changed? The trigger was the tragic death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died as a result of an allergic reaction to sesame in a baguette she had purchased from Pret. Natasha’s parents, along with other campaigners, successfully fought to bring the way allergen information is provided for PPDS food in line with requirements for other prepacked food. Food Standards Agency chief executive, Emily Miles, says the new measures will “provide information to hypersensitive consumers in a form that is familiar and convenient for them”.

What exactly is pre-packed food for direct sale? Essentially, it is food that is packed before being offered for sale by the same food business to the final consumer. Food is considered prepacked if it is either fully or partly enclosed by the packaging; cannot be altered without opening or changing the packaging; and is ready for sale to the final consumer.

Give me some examples: Sandwiches from a chiller cabinet placed into packaging by the food business and sold from the same premises would count as PPDS food, as would burgers or sausages prepared by a butcher that are then prepacked to be sold on the same premises. Another example is a boxed salad sold via a retail unit and prepared within the same building, for instance a hospital or university. On the other hand, food placed into packaging after a consumer orders it, for example a freshly prepared sandwich or burger, does not count as PPDS food.

How has the change been received? Extremely positively by campaigners, as one might expect. The public is also supportive with 73% of individuals who responded to the government’s consultation on the new rules supporting the full ingredient and allergen labelling option. Businesses, however, are largely not in favour of the change with just 13% supporting full labelling based on consultation responses.

What are businesses concerned about? The cost for one. The government’s own impact assessment estimated total costs of £8.62m to implement full ingredient labelling including familiarisation costs, labelling costs and training costs. At a time of financial crisis in the foodservice sector the additional costs will be hard to bear. And because costs are difficult to estimate the actual figure could be a lot higher. Businesses have also highlighted the complexity involved in frequently updating and clearly communicating accurate ingredient information down the supply chain, and the consequent risk of mislabelling. Such concerns have prompted UKHospitality to label the new law a “retrograde step” and “potentially dangerous”. There is also the concern that full labelling requirements will lead businesses to narrow their ranges thereby stifling innovation. Despite the damage to the sector caused by Covid-19 there is no indication that the government plans to delay the implementation of the new law.

Has anyone done it successfully? Pret, understandably, was quickly out of the blocks. It rolled out full ingredient and allergen labelling on all of its pre-packed fresh foods last year following a successful trial towards the end of 2018. While Pret has the resources and expertise to introduce a system for full ingredient labelling, it is likely to be far more challenging for SMEs, a point acknowledged by the government in its impact assessment.

What happens to businesses that don’t comply? Failure to comply with the new law is a criminal offence and could result in a business being served an improvement notice or a criminal prosecution being brought against a business or individual. A person convicted of an allergens offence will be liable to an unlimited fine.

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