Allergen labelling and attitudes – a time for change?

By Sterling Crew

- Last updated on GMT

Sterling Crew: ‘Individual product labelling may well have prevented Ednan-Laperouse’s death’
Sterling Crew: ‘Individual product labelling may well have prevented Ednan-Laperouse’s death’
Sterling Crew, strategic adviser at Shield Safety Group, believes the two recent Pret allergen deaths expose a ‘worrying weakness’ in food labelling rules.

There has been blanket media coverage of the tragic death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died on 17 July 2016 from anaphylaxis caused by eating sesame.

Ednan-Laperouse died after eating a Pret a Manger artichoke and olive tapenade baguette. She had severe allergies to many foods including sesame seeds, which had been baked into a baguette that was bought at a Pret airport outlet. The ingredients were not listed on the packaging. She collapsed during a flight from Heathrow to Nice, despite her father administering two EpiPen injections.

Pret, one of the country’s biggest food retailers, confirmed at the time of Ednan-Laperouse’s death that products would not have been individually labelled with allergen or ingredient information, and that this was within regulations.

The company relied on UK law that permits no allergen labelling on products that are not prepacked, or are prepacked on the premises where they are sold. A ‘prepacked food’ legally refers to food that cannot be altered without opening or changing its packaging, as opposed to foods packed on the sale premises at the customer’s request or prepacked for direct sale.

Instead of labelling on the packaging itself, the retailer is permitted to prompt consumers to ask about allergens. This is done by ‘signposting’ with a label attached to the food, or on an easily seen notice where the intending purchaser chooses their food.

At Ednan-Laperouse’s inquest, the acting senior coroner for west London Dr Sean Cummings said that ‘it seems strange’​ that a local sandwich shop can benefit from that regulation but ‘that an organisation that sold  218 million items a year could also benefit’​. He added that ‘a cynic might think it was almost a device to get round regulation relating to information on food allergens’​.

Six previous allergic reactions

Cummings also questioned Pret’s handling of sesame at a time when there were six previous allergic reactions involving the same bread in the previous year. Responding to ‘serious concerns’​, he will write to Pret about its practices around collecting information on allergic reactions.

Cummings will also report to government on whether large businesses should be able to benefit from regulations that allowed reduced food labelling for products made in shops.

Environment secretary Michael Gove has already said the family of Ednan-Laperouse was ‘absolutely right’​ in its belief the law needed to be changed. He has instructed civil servants to investigate such a change.

The Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST), meanwhile, has called for cultural change and a review of allergen labelling legislation so that people with allergies can readily find the information they need to keep safe.

I believe Ednan-Laperouse’s case has exposed worrying weaknesses in rules around food labelling. When businesses are fully complying with the regulations and such tragic cases still occur, the law needs to be reviewed.

The case for reviewing food labelling regulations becomes even more compelling when you consider those food chains preparing high volumes across multiple individual sites. The law was designed to reduce the burden on smaller businesses – it doesn’t seem logical that the law treats large multinational companies with their more extensive resources and capabilities in the same way as a local sandwich shop.

Individual product labelling is the most effective way of communicating vital information for people with food allergies, and it may well have prevented Ednan-Laperouse’s death.

The importance of vigilance

For those living with serious allergies, it’s still important to be vigilant. Some have argued caveat emptor​ – in other words, the buyer alone should be responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made. However, I feel the food industry should do all that is reasonable and practicable to ensure that it gives the buyer its support.

It is worth reminding ourselves that sandwiches sold in supermarkets, which are prepared off site in manufacturing operations, fully label their products with the 14 allergens that consumers must be made aware of when they are used as an ingredient in food. The sites often have Global Food Safety Initiative​-accredited allergen management systems and have to meet strict retailer requirements.

The incident has highlighted how such tragic cases can tarnish even one of the country’s most loved and popular wholesome brands. The case generated a barrage of negative media criticism amid accusations that the company was trying to get away with doing the least they could and evading the spirt of the legislation.

It is a stark reminder to food business of the importance of the court of public opinion and the exposure to reputational risk. It’s a point not lost on Pret chief executive Clive Schlee, who recognises there is much more his company can do. Pret is to start trialling new labels that show full ingredients, including allergens, on packaging from next month. Schlee says this will be rolled out to all UK shops as ‘quickly as possible’​.

Pret found itself on the defensive again after it subsequently emerged that a second customer, 42-year-old Celia Marsh, collapsed and died on 27 December last year after eating a vegan super-veg rainbow flatbread allegedly contaminated with milk protein, which she was allergic to. An inquest has yet to be held and there is a dispute between Pret and its supplier CoYo as to the root cause.

This case will raise questions for Pret and its supplier about whether there were adequate audits and checks on ingredients. Whatever the outcome of the coroner’s inquest, it will once again put allergen management and labelling on the front pages of our newspapers.

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