Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Who is responsible for allergen information?

Our health and wellness depends upon a reform in the way our food is labelled

Food labels for handmade goods prepared in-store do not require allergen information on their packaging. The EU rules say that individual member states are responsible for deciding how information about non prepackaged food is provided to the customer, and the UK’s Food Regulations 2014 allow freshly handmade, non-pre-packaged food to not be individually labelled.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died in September 2018, going into cardiac arrest on a flight after consuming a Pret A Manger sandwich from Heathrow Airport. The sandwich contained sesame seeds, but the label did not identify the allergen. A month later, Theresa May said that the government must reconsider Food Packaging Regulations, and Michael Gove agrees with Natasha’s family that laws must be tightened.

The family’s lawyer Jill Paterson said: “The law as it stands currently treats multinational companies in the same way as a local sandwich shop. This cannot be right.” UK Food Regulations state that allergen information must be available and that if it is not on a label attached to the food it must be on a notice, menu, or ticket which is “readily discernible by an intending purchaser”.

Pret A Manger stated that their allergen information was present in fridges and that a notice on tills states to ask workers for any allergen information. Legally, this is enough. Some groups feel that when an allergy is life threatening the sufferer should always check with sellers because labels may not be enough. It seems that Natasha’s death proves that labels aren’t to be trusted: should there be a blanket law making all labels crystal clear?

Andy Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith where the Ednan-Laperouse family live, was disappointed by Pret A Manger’s response and stated that the “government is saying it’s down to businesses and businesses are saying it’s down to the government, while both are relying on enforcement from local government organisations that have been cut
to the bone”.

He continues to say that “We have a piecemeal regulatory framework, with no real resources to actually enforce it.” It’s a cat-and
mouse mess: things are only fixed when a company is caught out and something goes badly wrong.

So why does the law allow Pret A Manger to not put allergen information on every product? This regulation is designed to ease the pressure on small businesses. Our local independent cafes and food stores will suffer if pedantic labelling laws are imposed on them. Many cafes and companies advertise allergens on whiteboards, wall-menus, and with little hand-written labels within food display-cases, which is suitable for their scale. The cost and effort of labelling every sandwich or meal would affect the profit margins of these companies differently to larger franchises like Pret A Manger.

Given that the packaging of a company like Pret is already mass produced, and, thus, can be amended in a single swoop, it is plausible that their labelling could be regulated with necessary allergen information without too much financial hassle. With this in mind, there is no reason why stricter laws should be not be imposed on large companies.

Additionally, in any supermarket, particularly with the advent of meal deals, you can rely on finding the same products every day. As a consumer, I perceive products meals from Pret or Eat in exactly the same way as if I had just walked into a Tesco or Waitrose, precisely because you can expect the same quality of food for the same price. It is not only awkward but near impossible to make an over-the-counter enquiry as to whether a certain product contains a certain allergen. The onus must therefore go back onto the company to be absolutely transparent in order to avoid another tragedy.

So what should be done? It’s evident that things must change. Nevertheless, the incoming laws must be nuanced. On the one hand, all products need to be safe for the consumer, on the other, a barrage of labelling information runs the risk of not only putting off the customer, but negatively altering the finances of smaller businesess. But shouldn’t health and safety be placed above money?

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles