According to research conducted by law firm RPC, in the 12 months to 31 October 2018, the number of recalls rose from 145 in the previous year to 203.
RPC said there were 110 food recalls specifically related to allergy risks in 2017/18, up 31% from 84 in the prior year.
Allergy-risk ingredients in food products have recently contributed to the deaths of two people, including a 15 year-old girl who died after consuming sesame seeds in a Pret A Manger baguette. The law does not require the potentially allergenic ingredient to be listed on the product as it was made fresh on the premises.
These deaths have led to the Food Standards Agency launching a consultation on its guidance on food traceability, withdrawals and recalls, earlier this year. The consultation suggested that businesses needed to improve their product safety standards and reporting procedures, potentially driving up food recalls in the future.
Also under consultation is the legislative framework for the provision of allergen information for foods packed on the premises from which they are sold. That consultation opened on 25 January and is open until 29 March 2019.
RPC added that EU legislation was introduced in December 2014, which toughened the requirements for food labelling and might also have contributed to the increase in the number of food recalls.
Meanwhile, non allergy-related food and drink recalls increased by 52% year-on-year, from 61 to 93. These included marshmallow candy having a possible mice infestation and sushi containing glass fragments.
Nick McMahon, head of health and safety at RPC, explained the increase in allergy recalls.
“Publicity around recent deaths due to unlabelled allergens in food has helped contribute to a more ‘safety-first’ approach among businesses, and possibly a rise in food recalls.
“The Government is also scrutinising the area, and is consulting specifically on new legislation intended to tighten up labelling requirements for allergens, and more generally on guidance on oversight of the food supply chain. That could trigger even more food recalls in the future.
A RPC spokesman explained that the increase in recalls came despite the costs to a business of recalling a product being significant, and could include legal fees, the collection, transport and destruction of products, advertising and communications. He warned that recalls managed poorly, or in response to an adverse incident, however, risked a loss of reputation and lower customer loyalty.
Gavin Reese, product liability partner at RPC, said: “One interpretation of the data is that businesses appear to be increasingly ready to initiate recalls despite the impact a product recall can have.
“While the short-term fallout may include legal or regulatory actions, and the cost of having to collect products, the effect of a recall on public perception could be even more significant. The loss of customer trust in a brand can be far more costly in the long term if a recall is dealt with poorly. However, an appropriately managed recall, and the prevention of harm, should actually help to enhance brand value.”