One of the UK’s leading industry procurement specialists has called for food labelling laws to be revised following two tragic deaths attributed to allergic reactions.
The Regency Purchasing Group says it would like to see the provision of clear and concise allergen information become compulsory in all circumstances.
The Weston-super-Mare-based organisation spoke out following reports of the deaths of two people who had eaten products bought at two separate Pret a Manger stores.
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, died after eating a Pret baguette in July 2016 which she bought at Heathrow Airport before flying to Nice.
She fell ill during the flight and an inquest into her death last month concluded that sesame, an ingredient she was allergic to, was not listed on the label.
Following that inquest, news emerged of the death of a 42-year-old mother-of-eight from a suspected allergic reaction after eating a ‘super veg rainbow flatbread’ from a Pret outlet in Bath. An inquest into Celia Marsh’s death is due to take place next year.
The sandwich chain claimed it was mis-sold a ‘guaranteed dairy-free yoghurt’ which actually contained a dairy protein.
Natasha’s family have called for a change in food labelling laws which they said had “played Russian routlette” with the teenager’s life – a call supported by the Regency Group.
Managing director Alex Demetriou said: “The law currently requires food businesses to inform customers if their products contain any of 14 specified allergens, including nuts, eggs and dairy. However, the law differentiates between prepacked and non-prepacked foods. The former must carry a label which clearly indicates where products contain any of the specified allergens.
“But non-prepacked food is treated differently. While consumers must be offered information about allergens, it does not have to be provided on a label on the food. The law says the information can be provided by any means the retailer chooses, including verbally, provided it tells customers that they can speak to a member of staff to find out which products contain allergens. This is designed mainly for restaurants, where you traditionally have a server and an open dialogue.”
Mr Demetriou said the problem lies in situations where food appears to be prepackaged, because it is displayed on shelves in packaging, but has actually been prepared on the premises for direct sale to the customer.
“In these circumstances the law says the products can be treated as non-prepacked food and therefore doesn’t require labelling. The law is flawed as it does not differentiate between a shop where sandwiches are made to order in front of the customer, and a shop where sandwiches are made on the premises, but behind the scenes, packaged up and put on shelves for the customer to pick up and take away.
“Many customers do not understand this subtlety and many may not be aware that the food they are buying was actually prepared on the premises, because it appears pre-packaged. They then believe that the food would be labelled if allergens were present, so they assume that the product is safe to eat when it may not be.”
Mr Demetriou said the law should be revised to ensure clear and concise allergen information is provided in all circumstances.
Pret announced it would list all ingredients on its freshly-made products following Natasha’s death, a move welcomed by the Regency Group.
“The food and beverage sector should be fully committed to clearly labelling all allergens, removing any doubt,” continued Mr Demetriou. “When we undertake procurement audits, we often see people occasionally or, more worryingly, regularly, buying from supermarkets when they have run out of something. All the while, when substituting a product, the allergen information is not always updated.
“We, through our supply chain, ensure that all allergen data is available, and we are in the process of developing systems to ensure all this information is available via electronic tablet, so that it is instantly available.”
The Regency Group works with more than 2,700 leisure businesses throughout the UK, including some of Britain’s best-known attractions, golf clubs, pubs and hotels.