The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has backed mandatory full ingredient labelling for pre-packed direct sale food – but its stance has drawn opposition from critics who think it will become a bureaucratic nightmare for operators.
The FSA said that increased allergen information should be provided on pre-packed direct sale food to give consumers greater confidence in the food they eat.
Prepacked foods for direct sale are those that have been packed on the same premises from which they are being sold, such as a packaged sandwich or salad made by staff earlier in the day and placed on a shelf for purchase.
Currently, these foods are not required to carry labels and information on allergens, as it is expected that the customer can speak with the person who made or packed the product for this information.
Earlier this week, the FSA board also set out key priorities identified as part of an ambition to make the UK the best place for food hypersensitive consumers, which includes those with food allergy and intolerance.
At a public meeting, the board agreed on advice for ministers that full ingredient labelling should be mandatory for all pre-packed food for direct sale.
It sides with allergic consumers that full ingredient labelling would deliver a significant improvement, and greater consistency by following the same labelling system that consumers are familiar with, as found on packaged food.
Chair, Heather Hancock said: “Food allergies and intolerance affects millions of people and its impact can be as big or bigger than almost all other foodborne diseases. That is why we have concluded that more extensive food labelling is the right outcome to provide greater protection for consumers but introduced in a way that we can be confident will work.
“While it is impossible to eliminate the risks entirely, we consider that this change along with other measures we are prioritising will deliver more effective protection for allergic consumers.”
The FSA also agreed that the department should lead on a range of work to promote and accelerate the sharing of best practice across the industry and improve awareness in businesses and the public.
The decision by the board will be the basis for the formal advice provided to ministers who will take the final decision, but they are expected to face pressure from opponents to such a move.
UKHospitality – which represents the hospitality sector – reiterated its long-held view that mandatory full ingredient labelling for pre-packed food was not the answer.
Chief executive, Kate Nicholls, argued: “Customer safety is obviously a key issue for hospitality. Consumers and policy-makers feel strongly about it and hospitality businesses are equally serious about the matter. That is why many businesses have already implemented their own measures to ensure that customers remain safe, and the industry continues to work with stakeholders, including the FSA, on the issue.
“However, full ingredient labelling is not the way forward. Creating an atmosphere where customers and staff feel confident discussing allergens is the best way to ensuring safety. The government should not act on the FSA’s recommendations.”
Mrs Nicholls said that the full listing of ingredients would cause “significant issues” for businesses.
“The majority of hospitality businesses are small businesses and full labelling is not something that can be carried out accurately or effectively by chefs in a busy kitchen; nor can it be done by other members of staff who would need technical expertise to do so.
“Full labelling may also create a reliance on labelling that could prove to be less safe. There is the possibility of mis-labelling and no accounting for cross-contact which cannot be totally avoided. Not only is full ingredient labelling wholly impractical for some businesses, it may provide customers with a false sense of security.
“Some businesses, particularly smaller ones, may be put off making their own food on-site altogether and may resort to selling only pre-packaged food prepared offsite. This could lead to much less choice for customers and, as these products tend to go out of date more quickly, could exacerbate the problem of food waste.”
Hospitality UK believes the best way to keep customers safe is by empowering them to talk to staff members with the confidence that the information they receive is accurate and useful.
“We should not be discouraging customers from discussing allergens by relying on labelling alone,” concluded Nicholls.