Interview: Pret’s labelling leader

The high street chain has moved quickly to introduce full ingredient labelling following two allergen-related deaths. Nick Hughes reports.

Tom Sugarman is reflecting candidly on how Pret A Manger has accepted the role of standard bearer for the foodservice response to recent allergen tragedies. “We were all devastated by what happened,” says Pret’s UK shops director. “But we realised very quickly it was now our responsibility to be at the forefront of allowing people with allergies to get the information they need to make normal choices that people without allergies make on a day-to-day basis and we’ve really embraced that.”

Sugarman is referring particularly to the deaths of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, the teenager who died of an allergic reaction on a flight after eating a Pret baguette, and of Celia Marsh who died after eating a flatbread containing a yoghurt that was supposed to be dairy-free but was found to be contaminated with dairy. Coupled with other high profile cases such as that of the schoolgirl Megan Lee, who died from an asthma attack after her warnings about allergies posted on a Just Eat order for the Royal Spice takeaway in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, were ignored, the cases have shaken the foodservice sector to its core and given businesses like Pret cause to look again at how they communicate allergen information to customers.

We are meeting at Pret’s shop at Bressenden Place in London’s Victoria, a stone’s throw from the company’s London head office. The location has been chosen because the shop has acted as a test site for a number of new innovations, most notably Pret’s trial of full ingredient labelling on all of its pre-packed fresh foods.

Working through seven control points from the supplier to the shop, Pret has alighted on a system whereby kitchen staff, under the supervision of a team leader, use recipe cards to create products in batches of 12 to 15 before scanning a barcode on the cards which automates a print out of the desired number of ingredients’ labels, which are then stuck manually onto products. Aside from the addition of barcodes and labels, it’s not such a dramatic shift from Pret’s existing kitchen production system, which has served the chain well for 30 years, but Sugarman says the impact on the team at the Victoria shop when the system was piloted at the end of last year was huge. “I won’t lie to you, when we went live it felt like a hurricane but I think that’s because it felt so raw for us; at the time we hadn’t been through the learning experience and since then we’ve perfected the process thanks to this team.”

When the system was rolled out to a second Pret shop in January the difference, says Sugarman, was “incredible”. The plan is for all UK shops to have full ingredient labels by the end of the summer, putting Pret well ahead of the regulatory curve: full ingredient labelling is the most stringent proposal put forward in a government consultation on allergen information that recently closed.

Sugarman says Pret spent a lot of time talking to customers and other stakeholders following the inquest into the death of Ednan-Laperouse, after which the coroner expressed a number of concerns about how food regulations relating to allergens were being interpreted and applied. The unanimous verdict among those living with allergies, according to Sugarman, was that full ingredient labelling was what they wanted: “Anything less than that doesn’t give them the information they need.”

The current labels are fairly rudimentary, although Sugarman says the appearance is likely to evolve over time. The ingredient information, however, is plain for all to see with allergens highlighted in bold, as is the law for packaged foods.

The decision to proactively introduce full ingredient labelling puts Pret at odds with food-to-go rivals like Pod and Itsu, whose favoured option under the government consultation is to provide “ask the staff” labels on packaging. One of the arguments against full ingredient labelling is that it increases the risk to the customer when things go wrong because the label offers a false sense of security. Sugarman accepts the argument but counters that the burden is on the food operator to know what they are serving regardless of whether or not it is labelled. “If you know what’s in your food why wouldn’t you put it there?” he says.

One thing that is very apparent when scanning the fridges at Pret’s Victoria store is that ingredient labelling has not resulted in a stripping back of other allergen warning information. The “ask the staff” stickers remain, as do the notices that warn that Pret cannot guarantee that any of its food is allergen free. Such disclaimers are becoming increasingly ubiquitous across high street food brands, which deem it necessary to issue blanket warnings over the possibility of unintentional cross-contamination despite taking multiple measures to minimise the risk.

Sugarman says he “fully understands” that customers with severe allergies may still not be willing to risk eating at a Pret shop despite the lengths it has gone to to be as transparent as possible. “It frustrates me that this is necessary at the moment and I believe that as an industry we need to produce a clear set of statements and iconography that can allow people to understand the severity of risk that is in any production facility from a zero through a low, medium, and high framework.”

The risk of cross-contamination speaks to one of the issues raised by the coroner in his official report to prevent future deaths following the Ednan-Laperouse case. In his view, items prepared in “local kitchens” and therefore exempt from full labelling requirements were actually being assembled in large parts from items made in factory style outlets to Pret specifications. He was left with the impression that local kitchens were in fact “a device to evade the spirit of the regulation”.

Entering the kitchen in Pret’s Victoria shop it’s hard not to concur with Sugarman’s assertion that Pret is a “fresh food business”. Whereas many foodservice outlets buy in products that are already sliced and diced to specifications, here it’s evident that a lot of preparation is going on back-of-house. A box of avocadoes is in the process of being de-stoned; other raw vegetables are waiting to be chopped along with breads and cooked meats. Sure, it’s a slick operation but it’s hardly the assembly line model of production you’ll find in an average food manufacturing facility.

And herein lies the challenge for brands like Pret. You can do all the due diligence in the world, put in place systems that enable you to label every product, but with the risk of cross-contamination inherent in the kitchen environment it is hard to see how it’s possible to offer a watertight guarantee to customers with allergies that food is safe to eat.

For the moment, Pret’s approach seems to be the more action it can take the better. At the same time as introducing full ingredient information, digitised menu information is also being rolled out via tablets in-store. Staff training, which Sugarman says was already “very good” before the Ednan-Laperouse case, has been improved, as has the system for monitoring reported allergic reactions. Former Food Standards Agency and Tesco executive Tim Smith has also set up an independent allergens panel, and is leading an internal review of Pret’s wider food safety practices and policies.

The cumulative investment has been significant. The labelling system in particular has added seconds to the task of preparing each batch of product, which when you consider Pret sold almost 130 million sandwiches last year, adds up to a significant opportunity cost. Sugarman, however, maintains “it’s the right thing to do” for the two million people in the UK living with allergies who are “disenfranchised” when they go to eat out. “The messages were loud and clear, give me the information I need to make my choice,” says Sugarman.

No one could accuse Pret of failing on that front.

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