The cost of getting allergen management wrong

Recent news has been full of reports of the tragic death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who, despite her father administering two EpiPen injections, died from anaphylaxis. Natasha had a severe allergic reaction to sesame seeds, which had been baked into a baguette that was bought at a Pret a Manger airport outlet. The ingredients were not listed on the packaging. Pret a Manger’s UK chain has since been under scrutiny for its approach to the labelling of allergens and risk management.

Pret confirmed at the time of Natasha’s death that products would not have been individually labelled with allergen or ingredient information and that this was within regulations. It relied on UK law that permits no allergen labelling on products that are not pre-packed or which are pre-packed on the premises where they are sold.

A ‘pre-packed food’ legally refers to food that cannot be altered without opening or changing its packaging, as opposed to foods packed on the sales premises at the customer’s request or pre-packed for direct sale. Instead of labelling on the packaging itself, it is permitted to prompt consumers to ask about allergens. This is done by ‘sign-posting’ with a label attached to the food, or on an easily seen notice where the intending purchaser chooses their food.

Getting around regulations?

The coroner at Natasha’s inquest said: “It seems on the face of it a bit strange that a local sandwich shop can benefit from that regulation … but that an organisation that sold … 218 million items a year could also benefit from that regulation. A cynic might think it was almost a device to get around regulation relating to information on food allergens.”

He also questioned Pret’s handling of this ingredient at a time when there were six previous serious allergic reactions involving the same bread in the previous year.

Natasha’s case has exposed worrying weaknesses in rules about food labelling. When businesses fully comply with the regulations and such tragic cases still occur, the law needs to be reviewed. Especially the food-labelling regulations, as they apply to chains preparing high volumes of food on their individual sites.

The law was designed to reduce the burden on smaller businesses. It does not seem logical that the law treats large multinational companies, with their more extensive resources and capabilities, in the same way as a local sandwich shop. Particularly as larger food businesses have a standard specification-based approach to making sandwiches. This is totally different to a local artisan shop, which often has a bespoke response to individual customer requests.

Effective allergen labelling

Individual product labelling is the most effective way of communicating vital information for people with food allergies and may well have prevented Natasha’s death. Sandwiches sold in supermarkets that are prepared off-site in manufacturing operations fully label their products with the 14 allergens that consumers must be made aware of when they are used as an ingredient in food. It is still important that those living with serious allergies must be vigilant on their own behalf.

This incident has highlighted how such tragic cases can tarnish even one of the country’s most loved and popular wholesome brands. The case generated a barrage of negative media criticism and accusations that the company was trying to get away with doing the least they could and evading the spirt of the legislation.

It is a stark reminder to food businesses of the importance of the court of public opinion and the exposure to reputational risk. As well as the financial impact of loss of sales, it has badly damaged the business’ status. It is important to be seen to be doing the right thing in the eyes of your customers. In response to the death, Pret is trialling new labels that show full ingredients, including allergens, on packaging in all its UK shops.

Pret on the defensive

Pret then found itself on the defensive again after it subsequently emerged that a second customer died last year after eating a vegan flatbread, allegedly contaminated with milk protein that the customer was allergic to.

An inquest has yet to be held and there is a dispute ongoing between Pret and its supplier as to the root cause. It will raise questions for both about whether there were adequate audits and checks on ingredients. The coroner’s inquest will put the subject of allergen management and labelling back on newspaper front pages.

In light of these tragedies it makes sense for food retailers and those in hospitality to review the robustness of their approach to the management and labelling of allergens.

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