Earlier this year, the Food Standards Agency and Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) announced a public consultation on proposed changes to the allergen labelling laws in the wake of the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse. Printed below is a group response submitted to that consultation and signed by more than 200 members of the allergy community.
A little background: the consultation relates only to so-called ‘PPDS’ establishments – Pre-Packed for Direct Sale. This doesn’t have a completely clear-cut definition but basically means anywhere that makes and packages items ready for sale on the premises.
That includes sandwiches packed on-site and taken by the consumer from a chiller cabinet; salads displayed in deli boxes behind a counter and bought to take away by the consumer; takeaway items collected by the consumer if displayed in packaging on-site (e.g. chicken in a box; wrapped burgers). This may also include supermarket foods such as deli counter boxed salads, weighed and packaged cheeses; fresh (uncooked) pizzas from the deli counter; baked goods from a bakery counter.
It doesn’t include foods that are ordered by the customer, prepared freshly and then wrapped or packaged to be taken away; or foods that are prepared in advance of a rush, displayed on the counter but not wrapped until they are bought by the consumer (e.g. a pile of filled bagels in a cafe).
Anyway, here goes (warning: it’s long)… *deep breath*:
Allergen Labelling Review Team
Room 202, Zone 2
1-2 Peasholme Green
YO1 7PX 28 March 2019
Group Response to Allergen Labelling Review
I am writing as the informal representative of a group of 208 individuals who have come together under the banner of the Twitter allergy community @allergyhour to respond collectively to the DEFRA Allergen Labelling Review.
We have all responded individually to the consultation but, as people living with allergies, or with children with allergies, we feel that there are significant issues that need to be considered regardless of which policy option is selected and wanted very much to highlight some of the barriers and concerns that we face when trying to eat at PPDS establishments.
While the EU FIC regulations introduced in 2014 have in many ways dramatically improved the information at our disposal, there are still huge gaps in provision and understanding.
For background, we are geographically located across the UK, and our various allergies include all of the Top 14 plus non-top 14 allergens ranging from peas to lentils, orange, beef, onion, pineapple, chicken, cucumber and coconut. Our group also includes many with coeliac disease.
Below we have set out the key pros and cons we foresee in each of the four policy options; examples of the current situation as we experience it daily; and finally six key areas that we feel must be taken into account if this review is to effect meaningful change for the allergy community.
As a group the majority is largely in favour of full ingredients declaration on-pack (Option 4), but many have selected this option to be run in combination with others on offer.
We appreciate that the scope of this consultation is limited to PPDS outlets but also acknowledge that there is reference within the survey to potential wider future review of allergen labelling. As such, we have tried to isolate our thoughts to PPDS but inevitably the issues we raise extend beyond this into allergy catering as a whole.
The Policy Options
Option 1 – Promote best practice
The promotion of best practice should underpin any new strategy and be paired with all of the proposed policy options. This will be easy to implement and should be the status quo anyway. All education is useful education.
This was supposed to happen with the introduction of the FIC (EU 1169/2011) regulations but the impetus has palpably waned.
Allergen training is not a legal requirement and therefore falls by the wayside. Instead, many businesses engage either in low-cost, lowest common denominator training or in online legal disclaimer training and imposing blanket disclaimer signs in place of proper allergy controls and information. Without the introduction of mandatory training to back ‘best practice’ up, it is hard to see how improvements will take place.
This option will in effect continue the status quo, whereby some businesses cater well and others do not bother. There is no impetus/incentive for the latter to improve or change. What is needed instead is a nationwide, consistent, regulated approach.
“Promote does not mean the same as enforce”
“This is not regulatory so has no teeth. Environmental Health and Trading Standards/the Food Standards Agency are already underfunded and understaffed with no spare resources.”
Option 2 – ‘Ask the Staff’ labels on packaging plus written information available
Allergy consumers need to be encouraged to ask the necessary questions, and mandating ‘ask the staff’ signs is a good clear encouragement that communication should take place. It is important that staff are fully trained and in possession of all the information needed to handle enquiries and requests from allergy consumers. We are pleased that this option is backed up by written information.
This option should not, however, stand alone. It should be considered and included alongside whichever policy option is picked.
Any ‘ask the staff’ policy should also sit alongside clear labelling – these two options must go hand-in-hand.
Asking a staff member can be hugely stressful and impractical in busy locations, and also create anxiety in less confident individuals. It therefore needs to be backed up by proper policy and procedure – the gold standard would be a manager or appointed ‘allergy champion’ who is on duty at all times to take allergy orders and queries [see Wagamama, Leon for current best practice on this (the latter has only very recently introduced this system)].
An ‘ask the staff’ sign on a packet doesn’t necessarily ensure there is a member of staff who is willing or able to answer any queries to the required standard. This approach relies on very knowledgeable/well-trained staff to accurately relay information.
There is also a risk of miscommunication inherent in not also allowing the consumer to read information for themselves. One respondent, for example, recalls a member of a Marks & Spencer café team reading the wrong information from a staff allergy booklet.
There is also the risk of false reassurance from a staff member who does not fully understand the issues, as well as potential language barriers on both sides (staff and consumer).
Similarly, there need to be checks in place to ensure that any allergen information is regularly updated, or any unexpected ingredient changes are recorded.
There is also an urgent need for communications training – very often staff see allergen queries as an inconvenience or a nuisance. Teenagers, an especially vulnerable group, can be put off asking questions because there is no culture of encouragement.
The risk with this option – as with all – is that outlets will impose ‘ask the staff’ labels but then add blanket ‘not suitable for allergy sufferers’ disclaimers on all products/train staff to refuse to serve those with severe allergies [see here https://inews.co.uk/news/consumer/people-allergies-food-chains-running-scared-leon-pret-family/ (happily Leon has now altered its approach but this remains a growing problem in other outlets)].
There is a danger that, in not including allergens on packaging, less informed customers will assume the food is safe. And this also poses a high risk when food is taken away from the premises – for example for consumption during work meetings, or when bought for someone else.
“Very often allergy consumers feel pressured by queues behind them/harassed staff to curtail their questioning before they feel comfortable with the information provided.”
“Too often I ask but nobody can find the allergen book, or the person responsible is on a break, or too busy to talk. It can be quite intimidating to ask, especially when you are treated as a nuisance.”
“With no knowledge of which items are safe, customers may have to take all items to staff to discuss requirements, or queue multiple times during busy periods – to get information, then to select their food and pay.”
“In reality this approach only helps to stop people from buying food that isn’t suitable rather than helping them to choose food that is.”
Option 3 – Allergen labelling on pack
This potentially provides good, clear, simple information on the top 14 allergens and gives staff a clear focus on what to highlight. It is also a step forward from the current situation, which is essentially a free-for-all.
It excludes the non-top 14 allergens, which are far from a niche problem. Legume allergies, for example, are on the increase and signatories to this response are typical of allergy consumers as a whole in having a host of non-top 14 allergies alongside the more common ones.
There is also a risk that the outlet will, by including allergen labelling, believe that they have fulfilled their responsibilities and have no further information to give.
This can also be open to mistakes or specifics being excluded. Very often a generic ‘nuts’ label is used that is no use to those with specific tree nut or peanut allergies, or variations of gluten-containing grains such as couscous, durum etc are missed.
“It reinforces what many people incorrectly believe – that these 14 are the only foods to which people can be allergic.”
“Not all allergens are in the Top 14 so I personally would still have to ask for the full ingredients. I fear that blanket ‘may contain’ labels will be put on everything as a back-covering exercise.”
Option 4 – Full ingredients labelling on pack
This would ensure no disconnect between the product and the label, therefore making it clearer for all. It’s also the most easily accessible information and ensures that non-top 14 allergens are included. The consumer doesn’t need to flip through a cumbersome ‘allergy book’ and can make a decision – or at least shortlist their options – at point of sale.
Furthermore, it would help the consumer to feel that the business knows what is in its products with less reliance on individual members of staff. Ideally, it will also serve as a guide to staff preparing food to ensure mistakes aren’t made (for example the wrong spread when making up a sandwich) or that caterers do not substitute alternative ingredients without giving thought to the information provided.
The biggest worry for all respondents is that this system still does not allow for an informed assessment of cross contamination. Consumers with allergies need to know the presence of allergens within the production environment, and whether they pose – as the FSA guidelines state – a “significant and demonstrable risk”.
There is also the risk of mislabelling, particularly in a small or busy kitchen, as well as over-reliance on labels by consumers. As a consequence, again, this option HAS to be run in conjunction with in-depth training and staff available to fully answer allergen queries. Catering businesses need support and proper detailed guidance to manage this option properly.
“Full ingredients labelling would allow people to make informed decisions regarding food options and manage their own risk, something that fits with the public health approach to people managing their own health.”
“As consumers trust labels, this could cause more incidents as consumers may eat wrongly labelled packaged food.”
“An unintended consequence might be that businesses decide it’s too much hassle and label items as cross contaminated to avoid having to implement the labelling fully – thus limiting both choice and trust.”
“I don’t believe this option will work without promotion of best practice to underpin it. Furthermore, even with the full ingredient listing there should still be a push to encourage dialogue between consumers and retailers in order to normalise allergy conversations and to enable consumers who need to take ‘may contain’/manufacturing environments into account when risk assessing products to decide whether to consume them.”
“Listing full ingredients does not address the potential for cross contamination so staff need to be trained to understand the issues surrounding managing food allergies.”
The current situation
Overwhelmingly, almost all respondents said that they do not currently eat at PPDS outlets due to conflicting, incomplete information, staff attitude, risks of cross contamination and lack of clarity around what is and isn’t required.
“We don’t. Too risky. Isolation, son missing valuable and ‘normal’ life experience.”
“It’s not something we do. I only buy sealed labelled food for my son.”
“My local chip shop gets round it by saying none of their food is safe for people with allergies.”
“We don’t order PPDS foods for the very reason that we cannot trust it.”
“I don’t buy PPDS very often as it’s just too hard to find the information/assurances that I need.”
“To be honest I don’t buy PPDS foods as I consider the cross contamination risk too high.”
“I rarely order PPDS for various reasons; one of them being that I just don’t know for sure what’s in it.”
“We have avoided due to ‘may contain’ labels and risk of cross contamination with allergens.”
“I don’t order this type of food. Negotiating the allergen information is stressful and humiliating and encourages abuse from impatient customers in the queue. Lack of staff training means that staff are frequently not able to access the required info. I don’t like the fact that the food has no label so there’s no means of even knowing what the item is, let alone the ingredients, once outside the shop. If you’re not experienced in dealing with allergy, or you’re shopping for someone who is, this system is dangerous.”
Previous bad experiences
There are many examples of poor experiences at PPDS outlets. These include staff not knowing what allergens are in their foods, or appearing inconvenienced by questions.
It’s hugely common for staff to conflate ‘gluten free’ with ‘dairy free’ or ‘egg free’ and to be unable to specify the type of nut or grain in a food item. It’s certainly hugely difficult for people dealing with non-top 14 allergens to assess what may be in any one product.
“It’s all too common to come across staff who happily insist an item is ‘nut free’ yet appear clueless that the product may have been made where nuts are handled.”
“Our worst incident was cross contamination with cheese resulting in major diarrhoea/vomiting, and which has now added to my child’s psychological distress about being able to safely eat outside the house.”
“We’ve had people refusing to serve me all together – ‘I haven’t time for people like you’, or ‘people like you shouldn’t eat out’. A bit hard when you’re a police officer retained on duty so there’s no chance of having prepared additional food!”
“We ordered a sandwich from a canteen-style restaurant. We asked about allergens and were provided with an allergen menu. The sandwich (made on site but wrapped and stored in a refrigerator for the customer to buy) was marked as not containing milk on the allergen menu, so we chose that. One bite in, it was clearly made with butter. On challenging this with the staff, we were told ‘oh, I imagine all the sandwiches are made with butter’. The allergen menu only applied to the filling, it turned out.”
“At a supermarket, looking to buy some baked products, the label declared the allergens included. I asked a member of staff to confirm the ingredients and I was told it didn’t contain milk. I asked them to double-check. Sure enough, it did contain milk, it just wasn’t listed as an allergen!”
“I asked whether a cake contained nuts. I was assured by the manager that it didn’t… until another member of staff piped up, ‘but hasn’t it got almond milk in?’ The manager then proceeded to argue that ‘almond milk isn’t nuts’.”
“Supermarket bakeries and deli counters are the worst – they now have blanket ‘may contain’ labelling, even on fresh fish and meat.”
“I had a near miss when asking if something contained walnuts and I was assured it didn’t. I asked to see the allergy book and found it contained ‘tree nuts’. The poor girl serving me didn’t know that a walnut was a tree nut. And why should she? She was a 16-year-old Saturday girl.”
“A local café turned away our group of 8 as they couldn’t identify what nut products were used in any of their cakes and said the kitchen wasn’t safe.”
“Giraffe in London refused to serve our daughter at all even after a long conversation regarding the ingredients of a dish that did not pose a high risk.”
“There was no mention of nuts in any of the allergen information – but the foods were all cooked in nut oil.”
What are the biggest myths and misconceptions?
“Only nuts can kill.”
“That we expect them to ‘guarantee’ safety. I expect this no more than they can ‘guarantee’ safety from a food hygiene perspective – i.e. it cannot be guaranteed, but risk should be mitigated and where this isn’t possible should be clearly communicated.”
“Allergens are destroyed by heat (VERY common).”
“That we are fussy eaters.”
“That gluten free is the answer to everything and that only peanuts will kill someone”
“That as a Coeliac I can’t eat dairy or eggs.”
“No understanding of cross contamination (the same toaster is NOT OK).”
“Over-vigilance – not understanding that having something in the same kitchen in a sealed box isn’t necessarily a risk.”
“That the processes for managing allergens are more onerous than those for managing the risks from raw meat. They aren’t.”
“That we are all just waiting to sue.”
“That allergies are equivalent – I am often provided with gluten-free options when I specify being allergic to milk.”
“There are only 14 allergens.”
“That putting up a sign stating all their products may be contaminated with all or any allergens is acceptable.”
“That people don’t have multiple allergies – caterers can manage to provide a milk free product/soya free product, for example, but when you enquire about dishes/products excluding multiple allergens, it’s often as though the ‘computer says no’!”
“It swings from allergies aren’t serious to complete paranoia about them.”
Stated examples of good practice include: McDonald’s, Disney Resorts, Nando’s, Wagamama, Byron Burger.
“I would give the Wagamama method as the ideal – all orders taken by the manager, reference to the allergen menu every time, manager communicating directly to the chef, appropriate cleaning down of work stations etc.”
“I walked into Byron in London last week. Usually I’d phone ahead but kids were exhausted so stopped at first restaurant! Greeted by staff member, I announced my allergies, she listened well, got menus, reassured me, handed up to date folder to me, answered any questions I had. Her confidence and reassurance with professional attitude was brilliant. Safe meal. Survived another day!”
These are the headline issues that we believe must be consideredwhen implementing any new allergen labelling policy.
There are serious concerns about the legibility and accuracy of labelling, particularly on small items/in a busy catering environment.
While the FIC regulations have minimum font size requirements of 0.9mm, in practice these are already problematic as many are too small as to be legible/are easily rubbed off or smudged/frequently covered with price stickers and discount labels.
This area of legislation would need to be tightened up and subject to strict oversight. There is a suggestion by some that the development of allergen symbols may be preferable, or at least an idea to consider.
There is significant concern about mislabelling and the need for very clear and detailed guidance and oversight. The current system of written guidance supplied by the FSA still results in multiple mistakes and misunderstandings in PPDS and restaurant environments.
Labels alone are not enough – there needs to be someone available at all times with back-up information and knowledge to answer allergy consumer’s queries.
Labels do not cover genuine cross contamination issues. This can only be resolved through mandatory training and increased awareness.
A system needs to be in place for double-checking to reduce the chance of human error – significant thought needs to be given to processes for this that can be adopted by all sizes of business. It is not enough to leave this down to the individual business. There has to be support and training available for caterers.
The unanimous consensus is that none of the options above will have any meaningful impact without training to back them up.
Current training is often reliant on low quality, lowest common denominator online tools.
We would like to see obligatory certified allergen education included in all catering training as well as ongoing professional training to update and refresh staff knowledge at regular intervals.
This needs to cover:
Cross contamination – e.g. how cooking food in a fryer with other allergens/allergenic oils is a serious risk and has to be included in any allergen communication; how handling items with the same utensils or displaying items alongside allergenic items renders them unsafe for the allergic consumer; how to prepare food in a kitchen/prep area that handles multiple allergens, yet still be able to provide a suitable offering for a person with those allergies
How to remove allergens – use of soap and water and NOT sanitisers, disinfectants or heat (all common misconceptions).
How to safely store foods to avoid cross contamination
End-to-end allergy awareness – particularly in establishments where the meal is partially constructed in a kitchen, then combined at Point of Sale. For example, being given portions of butter with a jacket potato that has been confirmed to be dairy-free.
“Training needs to be formal and accredited and must include sections about hazard analysis, customer service, communication between customers and staff from reception to kitchen and back, best practice, what to do if a customer suffers an anaphylactic reaction.”
“None of the options appears to mandate any level of staff training. This worries me.”
- Attitudes & language
A key issue when trying to order food out/eat out is communication from staff. Too often, we encounter a dismissive attitude or well-meaning but wholly inappropriate language – for example, ‘I’ll try not to kill you’ to young children, or ‘thank goodness you’re still breathing’, or ‘is it life-threatening?’. These are not isolated incidents and are reported with alarming regularity.
Another increasing concern is the use of disclaimers – outlets insisting that allergic consumers sign a disclaimer before being shown a menu/served any food. This is unacceptable and distressing.
“We need to move away from fear and treating those with allergies as if they are a risk or inconvenience. Allergies can affect anyone at any time.”
“It’s about understanding the emotional impact of responding to allergic customers in a negative, unhelpful way.”
“Queuing for food is a big issue. When staff are unable to quickly locate the allergy info this is embarrassing – it leads to big queues with lots of huffing and puffing from staff and customers alike.”
“We’d like to hear about what procedures are in place with regards to supplier checks and cross contamination”
“Freefrom customers who are made to feel safe will be incredibly grateful and loyal customers.”
“People with allergies should not be made to feel like second-class citizens through poor staff attitudes, signing disclaimers etc.”
“Staff need to be trained that, while an allergy customer needs to be treated with care behind the scenes and reassured, they don’t want to feel singled out or made an ostentatious fuss of or have too much attention drawn to them.”
“I have come across staff in eateries who have asked me ‘how bad’ my nut allergy is, which feels as though there’s a misconception about how customers should be treated depending on a scale of severity. If a customer says they have an allergy that should be taken as seriously as possible, regardless of ‘how bad’ it could be.”
“We’ve heard so many times ‘how do you eat anything?’, ‘is there anything you’re not allergic to?’. Staff feeling it’s ok to say things like ‘hope I don’t kill you’ to a child.”
“It is incredibly unhelpful to tell my small child that her safety cannot be guaranteed when she eats carefully prepared food. I am amazed how many serving staff have done this. It’s equivalent in my view to a bus driver/pilot greeting a passenger with a message about how he/she cannot guarantee their safety as the bus/plane might crash. It’s cruel and unnecessary. I know it isn’t done maliciously but training on this would be great. “
- Proper oversight
For any of the policy options to work, there needs to be full and proper oversight from the relevant authorities.
Currently, the onus is on the allergic consumer to report bad practice, and this is not always a clear or easy pathway as we have to go via the relevant local authority’s environmental health department. It feels onerous and exhausting and many consumers do not know where to turn when they see poor practice or receive substandard treatment.
Any new policies have to be backed up by properly funding Environmental Health departments, which have the power, training and resources to perform regular spot checks, follow up on training and enforce regulations. Serial offenders must face fines or significant sanctions.
Caterers also need proper support and resources to help them navigate this new path.
“Can we change the term ‘guidelines’ to ‘law’ and actually enforce them? Having a reliable method of being able to report bad experiences so that a suitable authority can investigate properly really is necessary.”
“It would be great to see well-publicised phone numbers or websites that a customer can use to report a food allergen reaction as a result of eating food provided by an outlet. The customer could then outline the circumstances of that event so that rapid inspection could take place if necessary.”
“I work in the voluntary sector (health) and we have a notification scheme for all near misses and I think a similar system would work well.”
“I would like to see a requirement for all food establishments (outside of PPDS also) to publish details of a designated contact for consumers like us who need to check ingredient and allergen information/feedback on situations where we have been unable to obtain accurate ingredient details. (In much the same way that organisations are required to provide a data protection contact under GDPR legislation).”
“I would also like to see mandatory recording and reporting of near miss information by companies if this is brought to their attention so that an accurate picture can be built up of where and how problems are occurring and where/how safety of consumers is being compromised the most.”
- Allergy ‘Champions’
Relying on disparate, often poorly paid, casual or part-time staff to communicate allergen information fully and effectively is a big ask, not least when English may not be their first language. As such, we believe that every catering business must have a manager or senior member of staff on hand at all times – an ‘allergy champion’ – to answer any questions that arise at any point during service.
They must be fully versed in the preparation procedures, suppliers, ingredients and cross contamination measures in place and be able to communicate these effectively to consumers on request – backed up by written information wherever required.
Having someone on hand who is willing and prepared to respond makes life easier too for those who struggle to find their voice – teenagers navigating the world of eating out for the first time, for example, who represent a particularly vulnerable group within the allergy community.
It is about fundamentally changing the culture of catering to ensure that those with allergies feel welcome and, even if it is not always possible to cater, their questions are answered with empathy and understanding.
We do not expect to eat out everywhere we go, or to have a hefty choice of dishes from every menu. But we do ask for clear, transparent, accurate and empathetic communication.
A sign or a badge stating that there is always someone trained to ask would help tentative consumers to ask the right questions and ensure open communication on both sides.
“There are so many differing needs, e.g. those with disability, eyesight/hearing issues etc – it’s why allergy customers should be served by a highly trained manager.”
“Young adults/teens are particularly vulnerable as they may find it difficult asking staff for ingredients when out with non-allergic friends for example (not wanting to ‘make a fuss’ or stand out and be like their friends).”
“They should feel empowered to ask for this information by a culture of ‘allergy friendly’ promoted by businesses… allergy sufferers, you are welcome here, just talk to us so that we can both be certain that what you eat will be safe for you.”
“I often feel rushed or an imposition when there is a queue of people behind me. What would be amazing is to be able to say you have allergies and for a designated member of staff to deal with you and your order while the rest of the customers are served without a hold up. That way we could take a bit more time to ensure it’s safe without choosing what questions to ask as quickly as possible. Having an allergen folder or equivalent at the front of the counter (before queuing up) would be helpful.”
“A customer should be able to enter an establishment, pick up an item and see a full list of ingredients including all allergens in bold, then approach a member of staff if they have further questions. This member of staff should know exactly where and on what surfaces the food item was prepared. And it would really be the cherry on top if that staff member was kind and helpful about it whilst taking it very seriously.”
“I feel that the allergy champion role would really help with all of these examples: a designated contact point within all outlets (perhaps displaying a universally recognised badge/logo). Allergic consumers could chat with and receive assistance from the allergy champion to navigate the systems/products in place until they understood exactly which products were available to match their needs.”
- Precautionary labelling/blanket warnings
This is, frankly, the bane of the allergy consumer’s life. No labelling/training policy will make a jot of difference if outlets are still free to slap ‘may contain traces of everything’ labels on to their products and in their outlets.
Currently, supermarket deli counters number among the worst offenders – Sainsbury’s fresh meat and fish counters, for example, now list every one of the Top 14 allergens as a cross contamination risk. If a major supermarket can get away with it, what hope for smaller independent businesses or those trying to eat anything outside of pre-packed or homemade foods?
The urgent response needed to the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and others is improved information, better processes in place and sympathetic communication – not, as many of us note and fear is becoming the case, businesses running scared and increasingly refusing to cater.
“Generic labelling ‘may contain’ when in all likelihood the product does not pose a risk adds to psychological distress that is very real for people trying to seek safe food options.”
“Fear has led some businesses to opt out completely.”
“Care must be taken that any legislative changes do not allow establishments to effectively opt out of catering by using blanket ‘may contain’ warnings.”
“It should not be OK to just blanket everything with ‘may contain’ to avoid libel action; but consumers should also be aware that ‘some’ risk will always be there. There needs to be education and consideration around the real risks and their probability. Then consumers should either be given the chance to make their own call on the information provided or there need to be stricter criteria for multiple levels of ‘may contain’ risk.”
[Names redacted for privacy]