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Five allergen-related challenges facing the food industry

Posted: 30 April 2021 | | No comments yet

As part of Allergy UK’s Allergen Awareness Week, New Food’s Joshua Minchin outlines five important challenges the food industry faces with regard to food hypersensitivity.

allergens

This week is Allergy UK’s Allergy Awareness Week, so I wanted to direct the spotlight onto food hypersensitivity, specifically looking at the biggest challenges facing the industry in that regard.

We cover the topic of allergens a lot at New Food, but with 32 million Americans and between 11 and 26 million Europeans estimated to have hypersensitivities to food, it’s a subject matter that cannot receive too much attention. So, here’s our top five points to be mindful of…

1.     Natasha’s Law

Natasha’s Law, which will require food businesses to include full ingredients labelling on all pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) foods, was passed by the UK Parliament in September 2019, following the death of teenager, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016.

The new UK law will come into force in October of this year and will require retailers to display the full ingredients list on product labels, with allergens emphasised, for all foods prepared on the premises.

The incoming law will mean more training, more equipment, and perhaps even more staff for businesses up and down the UK. There is little doubt as to the value of Natasha’s Law – former Food Standards Agency (FSA) Chair, Heather Hancock, called it “an important and welcome step towards our ambition for the UK to become the best place in the world for people who have food allergies and intolerances”.

Yet there is understandable concern that for some smaller businesses it will create a new set of regulations to follow and perhaps increased operating costs – a local sandwich shop may now have to invest in a label printer for the kitchen, for example.

There have also been concerns around the sheer amount of information that will now be required on food labels. Businesses have just another five months to ensure they comply with the new legislation in the UK.

But, as Carla Jones, Allergy UK’s CEO, put it: “the food industry needs to do more than the bare minimum when it comes to catering for the allergic community” and the law – although tricky to navigate initially – will “improve the lives of the allergic customer”.

2.     Eight become nine

We need to talk about sesame. Aside from being a tasty topper to burger buns and bread rolls, sesame has become the ninth allergen to be regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after President Joe Biden signed the FASTER Act into law last week.

As a result, retailers in the US will now need to indicate on food labels that a product contains sesame. Although this new law will not come into force for another 20 months, food businesses in the US will need to begin preparing for the change as soon as possible, so as to be ready for the FASTER Act’s introduction.

Sesame has been a regulated allergen in the UK and EU for some time, but US legislation did not require it to be labelled on food until now. This will come as a relief to many Americans with a hypersensitivity to sesame, who have had to make repeated judgement calls when it comes to choosing which foods to eat. Lauren E Krigbaum, whose daughter is allergic to sesame, told the New York Times that “when you have a child with food allergies, your life kind of centres around food,” and added that “being able to take a stress out of that is going to be huge.”

It’s another big win for hypersensitive consumers, but it’s also another law for retailers and manufacturers to get their heads around and adjust to – and the sooner that process begins, the better the chance of achieving compliance across the industry.

sesame has been declared an allergen

Sesame has joined the list of regulated allergens in the US

3.    Takeaways continue to present challenges

COVID-19 restrictions have changed the way food businesses operate across the globe; luckily it appears that in some parts of the world restrictions on hospitality will be eased further in the coming weeks and months. Yet this is not the case worldwide; plus there is no indication of whether habits created in lockdown will stick. Perhaps some will have become more comfortable with enjoying a meal from their favourite burger restaurant in their pyjamas over dining out?  

The truth is, nobody knows whether consumer habits will fall back into step with what we saw pre-pandemic. Businesses across the world have had to adapt extremely quickly, with many forced to begin operating a takeaway or delivery service for some months now.

It was commendable how quickly companies were able to pivot to such an offering, but, as mentioned in our  article examining the challenges 2021 might bring, this has resulted in some concern that allergen information is not making its way to consumers.

The safety net of waiting staff verbally delivering this information, as well as printed menus, disappeared – are restaurant staff informing consumers of allergen information over the phone? What happens if you order through a website or app? The FSA says restaurants must provide this information either in print or orally over the phone, yet the challenge for food businesses will be in continuing to instil confidence in hypersensitive diners that they can deliver safe food for them to eat.

Following the regulations will keep food businesses on the right side of the FSA, but it takes more than that to make consumers feel safe and confident in a restaurant; whether that’s at an outdoor table or on a sofa. 

4.     Ensuring adequate training

For those who do not have a food allergy, visiting a hospitality establishment is usually a fairly straightforward affair. But for individuals with a hypersensitivity to certain foods, it can be a stressful and nerve wracking event.

Ensuring staff have adequate training and knowledge is key. If you happened to tune into the panel session on E, you might have been shocked at the anecdote relayed by Gideon Ashworth, Head of Food Defence at Bart Ingredients.

Ashworth, who has coeliac disease, was staying in a hotel in Bristol. Seeing the establishment had a gluten-free offering, he decided to have breakfast there. “They got the gluten-free roll out of the packet, but they put it on the chopping board where the ‘normal’ bread was chopped and buttered. My panic levels went up considerably.”

Having explained to the staff the issue at hand – that if even a crumb was to come into contact, he would suffer considerably – Ashworth claimed the staff went on to prepare his new gluten-free roll on the same chopping board, separating it with a piece of paper.

He went on to confirm that he would be writing to the hotel to inform them of the episode and hoped that this would encourage the place to review its training. His trust in that particular hotel chain has no doubt eroded.

The lack of training for its staff in this case may well have lost it a repeat customer. Labelling is of course important, but the staff of any establishment are the face of the business and in many cases the biggest vessel of confidence.

Competent and informed staff increase confidence, and more importantly, deliver consistently safe food for all without the need for intervention from the consumer themselves.

bread chopping

Ensuring staff are properly trained is crucial to keeping all consumers safe

5.     Labels will double meanings

As proven by the rise in vegan trademarks registered in the past year, vegan diets are going nowhere. While many say the rise in veganism will have sustainability benefits, it will also create a challenge for vegan food producers.

Whilst vegan food is inherently dairy and egg free, it isn’t always the case. Put simply, vegan food does not necessarily mean free-from and one should never take ‘vegan’ to mean this – read the ingredients list and check.

This is a similar challenge that those with hypersensitivity face when companies change their recipes; those with allergies usually have ‘safe foods’ – ones that they have eaten before. It’s exhausting, but checking the label is vital every time you buy. It’s great to see when brands highlight recipe changes on the front of package – I question whether this should be the standard. And, when it comes to vegan products, should the industry consider new labelling regulation or an awareness campaign that informs consumers that vegan doesn’t necessarily mean free-from?  

Conclusion

Having listened to several interesting discussions at Food Integrity, most notably the panel session involving the aforementioned anecdote from Gideon Ashworth, I have a real feeling that as an industry, we are moving in the right direction. Natasha’s Law in the UK, as well as the recent developments around sesame in the US, are indicative of the way regulators adapt to ongoing issues and rectify legislation accordingly. It can’t always be up to regulatory bodies though. From consumers, to publications, to manufacturers – we are all responsible for continuing the discussion around allergen management and holding the industry to high standards.

The challenges outlined above are by no means easy hurdles to overcome, yet they are nevertheless crucial in maintaining the steady progress the food industry has made in recent years in ensuring all consumers have access to safe food.

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