Government warned off “dangerous” allergen regulations

Better communication between businesses and customers is the most effective way to tackle allergen-related issues, said UKHospitality in its response to the government’s consultation on new regulations. Some of the options under consideration are “potentially dangerous” and impractical, the organisation warned.

Defra has proposed an overhaul of food allergen information laws. This followed the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, the teenager who died after suffering an allergic reaction to a Pret a Manger baguette containing sesame, purchased at Heathrow Airport.

Under current rules, food prepared on the site in which it is sold is not required to display allergen information on the package. Ministers are currently considering how the law could be changed in order to better protect allergy sufferers.

In a consultation that closed last week, four possible options were put forward: mandating full ingredient list labelling; mandating allergen-only labelling on food packaging; mandating “ask the staff” labels on all products, with supporting information for consumers available in writing; and promoting best practice around communicating allergen information to consumers (which would require no change to the current law).

The Department for Transport (DfT) is also consulting on a “passenger charter”, which will set out clear standards for a range of issues, including more consistent information for consumers with allergies.

In its response to Defra, UKH urged the government not to rely on full labelling. “It may be tempting […] but this option is potentially dangerous,” said chief executive Kate Nicholls. “Not only might it prevent customers from entering into a dialogue with staff, there are risks regarding mislabelling. It would also not be practical, as it would not circumvent the issue of cross-contamination which would be ever-present.”

The risk of cross-contamination, and how this is communicated to customers, is outside the scope of the Defra consultation. Nicholls added: “FSA approved, consistent stickering encouraging customers to ask about allergens alongside continued staff training and industry-led action is the best way to ensure that customers get the most effective and accurate information.”

In recent weeks, many high street brands have moved to protect themselves in the wake of the tragedy at Pret. Pret has committed to implementing full ingredient labelling across all its UK stores, whilst Eat already labels over 80% of its products with full ingredient information listed and allergens clearly highlighted.

Leon’s co-founder John Vincent recently advised diners with severe allergies to think carefully before eating at his chain. “Despite the huge focus we put on processes and training and checks therefore, there is no guarantee that dishes are free from allergens,” he wrote in a blog. “This is not because we take a lax approach to allergens. It is because we cannot guarantee – 100% – that mistakes will not be made.”

Many stores now have fridge notices or stickers displaying similar warnings: that no guarantee can be given that any food product is entirely free of allergens. A report published by Footprint in March, found that brands are using the legal disclaimer with increasing ubiquity to “cover their backs”. However, in some cases this is creating confusion and leaves allergy sufferers with fewer options to eat on the go.

The best way to ensure customers are kept safe and have confidence when they purchase food and drink is “to facilitate an environment which encourages an active dialogue and partnership of responsibility between customers and businesses” UKH’s Nicholls said.

This also extends to the aviation sector. In a consultation on its Aviation 2050 green paper, DfT said it wanted to see improved clarity and consistency in how the sector deals with nut allergies. “It is vital that sufferers have the confidence to travel,” said aviation minister Liz Sugg.

Some airlines have stopped serving nuts on flights, which provides some reassurance for those with allergies, but the possibility of exposure cannot be fully ruled out.

Allergy UK research showed a lack of clarity – 75% of respondents to a survey in 2018 felt the policies put in place by airlines were not clear. There were good experiences too. However, the range of positive to negative experiences with different airlines was concerning: it indicated a lack of consistency, said Allergy UK. Not only was this between individual airlines, but also between different cabin crews.  

The DfT consultation is open until June 20th, 2019, and can be found here. The Defra consultation closed on March 29th, 2019.

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