Natasha’s Law was brought into fruition following the tragic death of a teenager in 2016 after eating sesame seeds that were baked into the dough of a baguette. This event sparked outrage across the world due to the fact the label on the packaging didn’t reference this particular element of the ingredients. Five years on, the law, which was supported by 88% of the general public, was introduced and changed food packaging as we knew it.
This legislation, officially known as the Food Information (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2019 mandated that all food products falling under the category of pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) must include a comprehensive ingredient list on their packaging labels.
PPDS items encompass food items that have undergone processing and packaging within the same premises where they are intended to be sold. For example, consider a sandwich shop that prepares sandwiches in its kitchen, wraps them in plastic, and then places these packaged sandwiches in a refrigerator or on the counter for sale, without any further processing before being handed to the customer. Another instance would involve a butcher packaging a barbecue mixed-meat pack before customers arrive at the butcher's shop to purchase it.
Key stats from the Food Standards Agency’s evaluation
Earlier this year the Food Standards Agency (FSA) released the results of a survey that was carried out to take a closer look at how Natasha’s Law had impacted businesses, local authorities and consumers – the findings of which were extremely interesting.
- 42% of consumers surveyed said they saw an improvement in the availability of allergen information on PPDS products.
- 24% of food businesses surveyed reported that they were not fully compliant with all labelling requirements.
- 72% of food businesses surveyed have started to apply precautionary allergen labelling to their PPDS foods and 17% have started to sell their previously PPDS foods as non-prepacked.
- 75% of local authorities surveyed reported that they believed further action is needed to improve compliance including general training.
- 51% of food businesses surveyed reported that their costs had increased due to the PPDS labelling requirements.
Struggling to comply with Natasha’s Law
Given the above, we must question whether the current state of the law is suitable for its intended purpose. Considering that nearly a quarter of food businesses surveyed have confessed to non-compliance with the law, and 72% of these businesses have resorted to using precautionary allergen labels on prepackaged food, it is evident that significant efforts are needed from both food businesses and regulatory bodies.
Common factors contributing to non-compliance among food businesses likely include a lack of awareness regarding labelling requirements, a limited understanding of the regulations and concerns about the associated implementation costs. It is essential to note that none of these factors would serve as a valid defence in the event of legal action by local authorities.
Allergen labelling is regularly talked about within the food industry and widely known as one of the most common breaches of food law. Food business operators (FBOs) must announce the presence of any of the 14 major allergens, but they do not have to inform consumers about any unintentional allergens (usually the result of cross-contamination). That being said, businesses can opt to provide this information if they wish, and this is where the popular phrase ‘may contain’ comes from.
A breach of the allergen labelling requirements is a criminal offence and upon conviction can result in a fine. More serious breaches which either cause injury to a person or have a very high risk of harm to a person can result in fines into the hundreds of thousands for larger businesses, or even a custodial sentence. Even more minor breaches are likely to result in significant fines given the subject.
Another example of how serious Natasha’s Law is being taken by governing bodies is evident in the £1,529,855 of funding from FSA and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Made available for 2022 and 2023, the aim of the funding is to help local authorities cover the additional costs incurred to ensure Natasha’s Law is being enforced correctly in their area.
In summary, while Natasha’s Law has clearly made an impact with regards to food packaging, it’s evident that more needs to be done to ensure businesses are in line with the law and at less risk of prosecution or finding themselves embroiled in an unwanted crisis situation. When in doubt, businesses should seek specialist advice.
In related news, Food Manufacture highlights the key takeaways of Food Allergy Aware's 2023 mock trial event, which aims to help food manufacturers and retailers handle allergens more safely.