A recent coroner’s report (December 2022) into the death of Celia Marsh after she ate a Pret a Manger sandwich called for more ‘robust’ allergen labelling particularly for precautionary labelling such as ‘free from’ Celia Marsh - Prevention of future deaths report - 2022-0379 (judiciary.uk). This has now been followed up by a letter from businesses providing support for the coroner’s findings, as reported by the Grocer, NARF Letterhead (thegrocer.co.uk).
Celia Marsh, who died from a reaction to dairy after eating a vegan flatbread from Pret a Manger. The item was labelled as ‘vegan’ but was later found to contain contaminated coconut yoghurt.
1. Clarity on absence of allergens and thresholds
Food retailers said they agreed with the coroner’s conclusion that there must be a more robust system to confirm the absence of the relevant allergen, and an FSA consultation should take place into the changes required. “The FSA now needs to make a clear decision on thresholds and a strong recommendation to ministers…. This would provide sellers of food with an absolute definition of how much of a specific allergen pre-packed food could safely contain before being labelled as free of that allergen.”
The FSA is reviewing the international guidelines for allergen thresholds and has consulted on this. The published report Precautionary Allergen Labelling consultation report (food.gov.uk) found that there was consensus that allergen thresholds need to be set to support the standardisation of risk analysis of allergen cross-contact for prepacked foods and that a PAL with standardised wording should be provided when set thresholds for allergens are exceeded. There was significant support for improving and standardising allergen information within supply chains, so that all food businesses receive the precautionary allergen information they need, alongside the ingredients they source, to help enable any communication of allergen cross-contact risk to their customers to be as accurate as possible. The catering sector was identified as facing particular challenges. The FSA used the information to develop a range of options that was provided in the June FSA Board Meeting. At the Board Meeting there had been differing views on the right approach and it had been proposed that a written action plan would be useful FSA 22-09-01 - Minutes of the FSA Board Meeting on 15 June 2022 | Food Standards Agency
The FSA is reportedly currently reviewing the international guidelines for allergen thresholds and told the Grocer publication New allergy laws needed to ‘save lives’, say top food bosses | News | The Grocer this is due to be completed by the end of 2023. “We have set out plans to standardise the use of precautionary allergen labelling, help businesses manage allergens effectively, and drive up practices in the non pre-packed sector.” Ben Rayner, FSA team leader for food hypersensitivity.
2. Rapid reporting
The second recommendation was to ensure a more robust system for the rapid reporting of fatal and near fatal severe allergic reactions. Celia Marsh’s death in 2017 was not immediately reported either to Pret a Manger or the relevant authorities. The letter called on the UK to implement mandatory reporting of food-related anaphylaxis – like exists for infectious diseases – to ensure not only a more rapid and accurate investigation of cases, “but also allow more rapid action to be taken by food businesses if a valid concern is identified”. This system would require the reporting of cases of anaphylaxis by medical staff, and would therefore likely come under the remit of the health department.
Clarity on thresholds and use of precautonary labelling would assist food producers and consumers alike. There should be options for proportionate use of precuationary labelling to ensure safety and consistency.
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