OPINION: UK market needs to take action to avert food labelling crisis

The tragic case of a 15-year-old who died after suffering an allergic reaction to a Pret sandwich has thrust the issue of food labelling firmly into the spotlight and comes as British food label recall alerts are rocketing. Firm steps must be taken to ensure clearer labelling, writes Farzad Henareh of Stericycle Expert Solutions.

Statistics from the European Commission (RAPEX) show that the UK has work to do on food labelling and there are concerns following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse that Brexit could increase public health risks posed by mislabeled food.

Current EU regulations stipulate that all products containing any of 14 allergens must be clearly labelled as such on pre-packaged food. Products made fresh on site, as in Natasha’s case, the information must be provided in another form.

How this is done is left up to various EU member states, and without prejudicing any potential legal case it appears on first glance that Pret A Manger may well have fulfilled their legal obligation simply by having allergen information in a folder behind the counter.

With a consensus forming that current food labelling requirements are below what the public demand, it is time to look at how the UK stacks up compared to our European neighbours.

We have been assured time and again that Brexit will not lower the regulations governing the standard and labelling of food products available to the public.

However, statistics on food recalls, removals and destruction in the European Union over the last six months will be sure to raise pressure from the public that the UK improves its commitment to accurate labelling going forward.

According to the RAPEX system, over this period there have been three times the number of complaints from other European countries about inadequately labelled British products as there has been from the UK about other countries.

If these statistics are anything to go by, the UK is lagging behind its counterparts when it comes to the issue of food labelling”

In fact, over the last six months almost 20% of complaints about labelling across the entire EU concern British products.

When looking at 2018 as a whole the picture gets even more worrying. In that time period there have been two incidents flagged up by British authorities concerning imported products, neither of which came from within the EU.

Indeed the only EU origin foods to fall foul of labelling guidelines in the United Kingdom so far this year were produced domestically.

If these statistics are anything to go by, the UK is lagging behind its counterparts when it comes to the issue of food labelling. This is concerning from both economic and health perspectives.

Following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU next year, inadequate labelling could present trading barriers to UK food producers seeking to access the European market and if labels are not up to standards exporters face having products seized, destroyed or stuck at ports.

From a health perspective, any loss of access to the information shared between EU member states could make it harder and slower to track potentially mislabeled products making them more likely to reach consumers before being picked up.

In any case, it is imperative that the UK government takes steps to ensure that clear product labelling is enshrined in comprehensive legislation.

Without this, the British food industry risks falling behind the rest of Europe and the public face the prospect of continuing confusion and potential tragedy.

Farzad Henareh is vice-president of recall specialists Stericycle Expert Solutions, a B2B services company that specialises in managing food and beverage recalls. www.stericycleexpertsolutions.com

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