The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) held a board meeting on 8 May where the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ( DEFRA) consultation on the provision of information on allergens on prepacked food prepared for direct sale on food business premises (PPDS) was discussed and recommendations agreed for new legislation.
The consultation was specific to 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 particular 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 within the 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.
The main issue concerned the practical effects of any new recommendation and whether it would have a significant impact on improving consumer safety.
The FSA considered all 4 options put forward in the consultation from providing best practice guidance (option 1) mandating ‘ask the staff’ labelling to packages of PPDS food (option 2) to allergen-only labelling (option 3) and finally full ingredient list labelling (option 4.)
The over-whelming majority of consumers who responded to the consultation preferred option 4, with 73% wishing to have full ingredient list labelling, with allergens emphasised on products pre-packed for direct sale. The FSA board then interrogated whether this option was really the best for the health and safety practical consequences.
The benefit of a check-able enforceable written system was clear in that it would, in principle, provide the same level of comfort as packaged foods.
Against this there was the claim that strong legislation and weak compliance would not benefit safety and that ‘undetectable non-compliance’ may mean this would be not enforced up until the point an allergic reaction identifies the non-compliance. Other ‘unintended consequences’ were listed that the risk of mislabelling might be greater, there might be greater reliance on labelling and less training and discussion of food ingredients, the choice for consumers might be greatly reduced and further food businesses/caterers might decide to not pre-pack their foods which might put the consumer at greater risk of food hygiene and safety issues that way. Finally, the cost implications for smaller and medium sized food businesses may impact disproportionately.
Nevertheless, it was maintained that the difficulties that may result were not sufficient to argue against the clear consumer safety consequence of requiring the higher regulatory bar of full ingredient listing.
This will therefore be the recommendation by the FSA to government ministers. DEFRA will have the final say over whether new rules are introduced but if ministers choose to proceed with the recommendation, food businesses that prepare and pack food for direct sale will have to provide the full list of ingredients and highlight the presence of the 14 allergens on such products.
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