October 10, 2018

Allergy deaths – the importance of correct food labelling

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You may have read in the local and national news this week that there has been another fatal allergic reaction following the consumption of food which didn’t identify the allergens within it. With over 20% of the UK population estimated to be affected by some form of allergy, this has brought into the spotlight how we label our food.

How should food be labelled?

Identifying food allergens is essential to highlight the risk to individuals suffering from related allergies. The law states that, if you operate a business which sells food (even if you give food to consumers for free) and you use any of the above listed allergens as ingredients in a food product or meal, allergens (and indeed all of the ingredients) must be declared on products for human consumption. This includes substances produced or derived from food allergens or used in processing the food. To ensure clear understanding, the allergen should be declared on the label, on a menu, or at the point of sale.

Many food products provide allergen advice statements which emphasise the presence of allergens, for example: ‘Allergen Advice: for allergens, see ingredients in bold’. This is particularly helpful for those suffering from food allergies.

With awareness of allergies, “Free from foods” (or special ranges of foods made without allergens) have become increasingly popular, and anyone with food allergies would – understandably – consider such ranges safe for them to eat. So, if a label states that your product is 'free-from eggs' or, 'nut free', it has to have been produced and packaged under precise and rigorous controls. This includes checking that all ingredients and packing materials do not contain the particular allergen, and that cross contamination from other foods made on site has been prevented.

The consequences of poor labelling

When consumers with food allergies are not made aware of allergens being in their food, though, they are at risk of assuming the food is perfectly safe for them to eat.

As we have seen in the news, there have been a few recent deaths arising from the consumption of food where customers had not been made aware of the presence of allergens. Most recently, a woman in her early 40’s died after eating a flatbread containing yoghurt meant to be dairy-free. The flatbread had been sold to her by Pret-a-Manger in Bath, who hadn’t alerted her to the presence of dairy.

This was the second incident which occurred in Bath recently, the first being on 5th March 2017 when a young schoolgirl who had an allergy to dairy bought a doner kebab and died after eating it, as she was not made aware of its dairy content. Following the death, a joint investigation was launched by Avon and Somerset Police and Bath & North East Somerset Council’s Trading Standards and Food Safety teams. It revealed there were no signs in the takeaway alerting customers to the presence of any allergens in food and none of the menus had any allergen information.

These recent deaths emphasise the importance for food businesses to provide accurate information to their customers on allergens in their products. Grey areas may arise depending on where products have been sourced, or when food has been produced on-site as we saw in the case of another death which occurred recently. However, this should not recuse food businesses from their responsibility to provide food that is safe for their customers to eat, or to help their customers identify what is safe for them to eat.



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