Following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse caused by eating a Pret sandwich which wasn't labelled as containing sesame, the Environment secretary has launched a consultation on changing the law around labelling.
The question is – what level of labelling is required for safety and health reasons to avoid future deaths and severe allergic reactions? The proposals cover food that is packed on the same premises from which they are sold – previous legislation didn't cover this type of food, this is the loophole that Pret took advantage of to avoid full allergen labelling. This loophole was put in place so that small businesses, single outlet sandwich shops and the like, didn’t have to label every sandwich they made and handed over. Pret should never have taken advantage of a law designed for such small businesses.
There are four options being discussed:
As far as I’m concerned options 3 and 4 represent no real change. 'Ask the staff' labels and 'best practice' don't provide information easily, quickly or fully. Therefore these options do not go far enough to protect customers. They are, of course, good practice, but they fall short of the protections customers need to ensure safe food for the growing number of people who suffer food allergies in the UK.
The challenge with showing 'only allergens' is that many people are allergic to foods outside of the Top 14 allergens covered by the current legislation. And while mandatory labelling of the Top 14 allergens would be a step in the right direction I believe that we need full disclosure about the food we eat. It’s the only way to keep people, with increasingly complex health needs (celiac, crohn’s, allergies), safe.
We really ought to take a greater interest, and have better information, about the food we are eating these days. This is an issue that affects everyone, especially as the push towards eating out, and take-aways, continues to grow at an extraordinary level.
Today we have a very odd relationship with food, on one hand, celebrity chefs and cooking shows are hugely popular. But we’re as likely to be watching them eating a take out, as we are to be taking actual inspiration from them to cook at home. Ready meals, pre-made sauces, meal kits and precooked ‘BBQ’ meats are all recent additions to our diets. These are things our grandmothers wouldn’t have recognised. The impact on our health, in terms of the amount of processed food we are eating, is huge and we will really only begin to understand what we are actually eating, when we can see the ingredients.
For those with allergies, full ingredient lists are literally a life saver. They would certainly save us from the effects of accidentally eating something we’re allergic to, which can often be similar to food poisoning. Even with labelling it will be tricky, for example a dairy allergy isn’t just about watching out for milk, cream, cheese, butter, margarine, but also whey, and casein – a milk protein used as a food additive. Allergy sufferers will always have to be careful, but proper labelling should mean that eating out is safer, and risks limited to genuine human error, not just corporate laziness.
Yes it’s more work for businesses, but I expect Pret’s profits will have taken a hit from the recent coverage – I think it’s in businesses self-interest to support full labelling so there can be no confusion going forward, and no more deaths due to poor labelling. I was looking around at labelling to try and get an idea of the level of difficulty and found this label on freshly made sushi (from a counter) at Waitrose.
Ingredients printed clearly, and may contain traces of listed – this is probably a reasonable warning as all items listed are being used to make other types of sushi so there is a genuine risk of cross contamination at the bar. It’s possible to do this properly, there just needs to be the will. This isn't the same as blanket 'may contain' warnings that have shown up in mass numbers. Blanket warnings dilute the message, warnings should be clearly needed, not about corporations slapping it on every product. When that happens, it just gets ignored and people will end up getting ill. Sure the outlets can put their hands in the air and point at the warning, but that's not going to help. We need detailed labelling that's about giving accurate information so we can make informed decisions.
Allergy sufferers don't want to be isolated, we want to eat out like everyone else. All we're asking for is to know what's in our food easily so we can make decisions quickly. Large, bulky, allergy books that the staff have to hunt around for aren't the answer. Its a hassle for staff and customers alike especially in busy outlets when everyone is pushed for time. So much easier to print labels that we can read and decide for ourselves.
Here’s the link to the the Defra website, so do have a read and feed back your views:
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Allergy UK is a great charity providing information and help for people with allergies.
Their hotline is staffed by wonderful people offering their help free of charge.
Their number is: 01322 619 898
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