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Food companies are still facing allergy-related dilemmas

Whilst the introduction of Natasha’s law has been rightfully welcomed, there is still a concern over precautionary labelling as a form of allergen management within the industry, as Annabelle Roberts explains…

A new ruling (Natasha’s Law) was announced recently which will tighten regulation around allergen information on packaging.

From summer 2021, Natasha’s Law requires foods that are pre-packed directly for sale to carry a full list of ingredients. Whilst the move has been welcomed by charities across the UK, stating the benefits for allergic consumers, there is still a concern over precautionary (alibi) labelling as a form of allergen management within the industry.

Precautionary (alibi) allergen labelling is not a legal requirement but is needed when the product poses a risk. Precautionary labelling on vegan food products can be especially confusing; in Australia deaths from food allergies are rising by 10 percent a year and health experts are pointing their fingers at the rise of ‘fad’ diets, such as veganism.

Allergy sufferers relying on vegan as a proxy

Health experts are pointing their fingers at ‘fad’ diets, such as veganism, as being the cause in the rise of allergy-related deaths.

It’s no secret that veganism is a hot topic in the food industry. According to Google search, the vegan trend has quadrupled in the five years between 2012 and 2017. In conversations with our food industry clients, it has been referenced that vegan labelling is still being used by consumers as a proxy to allergen management. This is worrying to hear given recent high-profile cases regarding allergen labelling. The Vegan Society itself states that it ‘does not claim that products registered with the Vegan Trademark are suitable for people with allergies’. It defines this as two separate issues stating that ‘vegans avoid exploitation of animals, whereas people with allergies need products that do not contain the allergens that affect them.’

This year was record-breaking for Veganuary – a movement that encourages individuals to go vegan for the month of January – with over 250,000 people from 190 countries registering for the month-long vegan pledge. However, this comes at a time when recalls of unsafe food products in the UK jumped by 40 percent. Research conducted by law firm RPC, stated that the rise in recalls has been driven by rising concerns over poorly-labelled items causing allergy-related deaths. Although, the RPC added that EU legislation introduced in December 2014, might have also contributed to the increase in the number of food recalls due to toughened requirements for labelling.

Precautionary labelling proves especially challenging for food service

While the Food Standards Agency (FSA) states that precautionary labelling ‘should only be used after a thorough risk assessment’, food service clients we have been in conversation with are finding that EHOs are encouraging them to include ‘may contain X’ under each dish on the menu, which is potentially confusing to allergy sufferers.

Operators are concerned that if they include allergen information on a menu, consumers will be less likely to speak to restaurant staff about their allergies.

Food service operators are also concerned that by providing a lot of allergen information on a menu, consumers won’t feel the need to have a conversation with restaurant staff about their allergens. Echoing this concern, in 2018 the Anaphylaxis Campaign – a UK based charity operating for the people at risk from severe allergic reactions and anaphylaxis – launched Easy to Ask, a joint campaign with the FSA and Allergy UK designed to empower young people to ask food businesses about allergens when eating out.

Businesses now have a two-year implementation period and although Natasha’s Law is a step in the right direction, precautionary labelling still poses a major risk for food allergy suffers, especially for those who chose to rely on the vegan trademark as a means of allergen management.

About the author

Annabelle Roberts is an experienced consultant, sitting on both the Business Resilience and Innovation teams at Instinctif Partners. She works closely with a range of national and international companies to effectively manage their corporate reputation, with sector experience spanning FMCG, food and drink, sustainability, healthcare and manufacturing. 

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