The long awaited consultation on the provision of information on allergens on prepacked food prepared for direct sale on food business premises was published on 25 January by Defra.
The consultation is particularly niche in that it concerns the catering industry who 'Pre-Pack food on premises for Direct Sale' (PPDS) – such as a packaged sandwich or salad made by staff earlier in the day and placed on a shelf for purchase. A specific concern raised during the coroners’ inquest last year into the death of Natasha Ednam-Laperouse, who died due to an allergic reaction after eating a Pret a Manger baguette that did not carry allergen labelling, (and addressed in this consultation,) is the difficulty some consumers have in distinguishing between your standard prepacked food, which has strict mandatory allergen labelling requirements, and PPDS food, which as a minimum requirement means an easily visible and legible sign should be displayed inviting customers to ask for information on allergens.
Four policy options are proposed within the consultation:
Policy option 1
Non-regulatory intervention but rather promote (as yet undetermined) best practice around communicating allergen information to consumers.
This is a general move to promoting the better provision of allergen information by food businesses whether by direct ‘stickering’ of PPDS containing allergens or easier to access information, is not known yet. The difficulties of this are outlined as there being no guarantee in change of behaviour within food business practices and also the potential for large inconsistencies and uncertainty.
Policy option 2
Mandating ‘ask the staff’ labelling be applied to packages of PPDS food with supporting information for consumers in writing.
Whilst this would improve the provision of allergen information to consumers and increase consumer awareness there is a concern that certain consumers would not be sufficiently confident in asking for allergen information particularly in busy retail environments. Also, if food were taken off premises to be provided to a third party this similarly would not improve the information provided.
Policy option 3
Mandating allergen-only labelling on food packaging of PPDS foods.
Whilst this is accepted it would lead to greater consumer confidence it is highlighted that this would restrict a food businesses ability to substitute ingredients without relabelling costs; also businesses may simply chose to remove certain items from their menus thereby reducing consumer choice in general and food businesses may simply rely on their labelling thereby reducing the options for consumers to discuss other food intolerances/sensitivities directly.
Policy option 4
Mandating full ingredient list labelling of PPDS foods.
This would remove the distinction between prepackaged foods and PPDS foods and thereby any confusion for consumers. Similarly to option 3 however this might thereby restrict a caterers ability to substitute ingredients and incur greater labelling costs, increase potential for errors and may redfuce dialogue between consumers and staff. There would however be full information provided to consumers and so would reduce allergy incidences and increase confidence.
The consultation expects that mandating specific allergen or full ingredient labelling will disproportionately affect small and micro businesses. Small changes in their cost or profit levels can affect sustainability and cause them to go out of business. However, overall it forms the conclusion that competition would not be adversely affected although innovation may be deterred, sustainability and environment are stated would not be adversely affected.
Allergy UK CEO, Cara Jones, has been quoted as stating: ‘The broader food industry needs to do more than just the bare minimum when it comes to catering for the allergic community.’
It seems clear that more transparent and easier to access information on any allergens present needs to be provided in a more robust way across the industry and that this may, in due course, be set out via a national amendment to the Food Information Regulations 2014 (FIR). It is recommended that in the interim any food businesses that prepack foods on site robustly review their processes to ensure clear policies on allergens and information clearly signposted and accessible for consumers.
The consultation closes on 29 March 2019.