Is foodservice ready for full ingredient labelling?

In the wake of high-profile allergy deaths, the FSA is supporting moves to make full ingredient labelling mandatory for packaged food served outside the home. But the proposed solution won’t be welcomed universally, reports Nick Hughes.

The determined efforts of allergen campaigners have paid off. Earlier this month, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) backed mandatory full ingredient labelling for packaged food served outside the home in a verdict that is set to have major implications for foodservice businesses.

The FSA board rubber-stamped the policy after it was asked to consider responses to the government’s allergen labelling review on pre-packed food for direct sale, set up in the wake of recent tragic and high-profile deaths caused by allergic reactions to food purchased from businesses including Pret.

It agreed with the majority of consumers that full ingredient labelling would deliver a “significant improvement” and “greater consistency” by following the same system currently used for packaged food. “While it is impossible to eliminate the risks entirely, we consider that this change along with other measures we are prioritising will deliver more effective protection for allergic consumers,” said the FSA chair, Heather Hancock.

The decision by the board will form the basis of the FSA’s formal advice to ministers who will take the final decision, but it’s hard to see environment secretary Michael Gove reverting to a less comprehensive alternative given the pressure exerted by campaigners.

Just as persuasive, arguably, is the fact that businesses are already proving full ingredient labelling is possible. Pret is in the process of rolling out labels across its portfolio of around 400 UK stores. In an interview with Footprint last month the company’s UK shops director Tom Sugarman admitted a pilot at Pret’s Victoria shop in London felt like a “hurricane” had struck but insisted it was the correct course of action. Putting the systems in place to enable full ingredient labelling has been a steep learning curve, but ministers will note that if Pret can do it then other chains of relative size and resources can do it too.

While Pret will find itself ahead of the game, for other high-street brands the recommendations will come as a disappointment. Only 13% of businesses that responded to the consultation identified full ingredient labelling as their preferred option.

Both Pod and Itsu told Footprint earlier this year they favoured the softer option of the provision of “ask the staff” labels on the packaging of food prepacked for direct sale. This option was by far the most popular among all businesses, with ease of implementation and the opportunity for ingredient substitution without having to re-label products given as the main reasons.

It may not have been their favoured option, but bigger businesses such as Pod and Itsu should possess the organisational bandwidth to manage the process of introducing full ingredient labelling. The bigger question is whether small and medium-sized businesses will be able to cope if no exemptions are forthcoming.

Around 90% of individuals that responded to the government consultation expressed a desire for a consistent approach across all businesses regardless of their size. Support was lower among businesses and showed a split, with 80% of medium and large businesses supporting a consistent approach against 40% of small and micro businesses.

In a report published ahead of the board meeting, the FSA highlighted a number of concerns raised about the ability of smaller businesses to meet full ingredient labelling obligations. It noted that not only do smaller businesses have less resources for quality assurance than national chains but they are also less able to use long-term contracts to maintain a consistent product or technical specification to prevent ingredients substitution.

Then there is the cost burden. The government’s impact assessment identified total costs of £8.62m to implement full ingredient labelling, five times the cost of businesses’ preferred “ask the staff” label option and a figure that is likely to be a “significant underestimate” according to the FSA.

Such concerns are unlikely to wash with those living with allergies, however, who feel that their needs are not being catered for under the current system.

Change is coming. It’s up to businesses to get ahead of the curve.

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