When Hugo Miller goes on business trips, he always packs a sandwich, fruit and snacks. The routine is a matter of life and death for the Londoner who has a serious allergy to nuts.
“It’s hard to know where I can safely eat when I’m on the road,” the marketing executive said. “I often go to chain restaurants since they often have allergen information available. Random, unplanned visits to restaurants are simply not possible for me.”
Mr Miller’s life may become easier if the UK’s independent food safety watchdog gets its way. The Food Standards Agency, which estimates that about 10 people die a year from reactions to the 14 main EU-defined allergens, came out last week in favour of new labelling rules. These would require retailers who sell sandwiches, sushi or soups made fresh on site to display a product’s ingredients, highlighting allergens in bold.
If adopted, the changes will anger some in the industry who say such labelling would be onerous, expensive and ineffective. The British Sandwich & Food to Go Association called the plan “complete madness” since the risk of cross-contamination in kitchens would remain.
The regulatory activity was sparked by the deaths of two people who ate food from Pret A Manger. The family of 15-year old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after having an allergic reaction to sesame seeds in a Pret baguette in 2016, has been actively lobbying the government to do more to protect allergy sufferers.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is consulting on the matter, said it welcomed the FSA’s input and “will continue to work at pace to bring forward legislation that ensures food allergy suffers can feel safe when choosing what food to buy”.
It will also have to decide whether businesses of all sizes would have to comply, and when.
Everyone agrees on one thing: Ednan-Laperouse’s death was a watershed moment. “What happened at Pret could have happened anywhere,” said John Vincent, co-founder and chief executive of fast-food chain Leon. “Since then, the issue of allergies has been elevated to board level. Serious time, energy and money are being devoted to the issue.”
According to the World Health Organization, allergy incidence is on the rise in developed countries. Peanut allergy among children in the UK, North America and Australia has doubled in the past 10 years. In the UK, it is estimated that 1 to 2 per cent of adults and 5 to 8 per cent of children have a food allergy, according to Defra, and many others suffer from intolerances.
Allergen labelling is not currently required by UK law when the food is cooked on site, although staff are required to provide allergen information if customers ask. In contrast, pre-packaged foods must have full ingredient and allergen labels.
The government is studying whether to close the loophole by requiring allergen labelling for foods classified as “pre-packed for direct sale”, the middle ground in which meals are made on site and packaged for immediate takeaway — as at the likes of Pret A Manger, Greggs and Subway.
Some food retailers cannot afford full ingredient labelling, industry executives say. Pret A Manger has said its promised move to label all its foods will costs an estimated “1 to 2 per cent of sales” per year, while Roger Whiteside, Greggs’ chief executive, told the Financial Times that “operationally it’s going to be costly”.
Logistics can also prove challenging. Mr. Vincent said allergen labelling would be impractical for his company given the frenetic peak-time activity in what are usually small kitchens. On a recent visit to a London Leon restaurant, six staffers jostled each other as they prepared curries, burgers and salads.
Eliminating inadvertent cross-contamination in such circumstances would be very difficult — at Leon, a big heated pot of peanut-based satay sauce was kept on a separate table in an effort to isolate it from the main food prep zone, but was less than a metre away.
Even though Mr Vincent does not think full ingredient and allergen labelling is a good idea, Leon lists allergens on menu boards, as well as requiring staff to ask each customer as they order whether they have allergies. If a customer says they do, then a manager supervises the preparation of their order.
UKHospitality, which represents retailers across the hospitality sector, said full labelling was not the “magical thing” that would solve allergy sufferers’ problems. The trade body instead advocates stickers on foods that advise customers to ask staff about allergen risks.
However, Greggs, which has almost 2,000 stores across the UK, said that all food-to-go businesses should “up their game”. Mr. Whiteside said it would be trialling two methods of labelling products with a full ingredient list and that, at the least, all shops should have to mark what allergens were in a product.
“A tragedy is no more acceptable at an independent than a chain shop,” he said.
Food outlets hope that technology can help. Sushi chain Itsu and Asian-themed Wagamama, for example, have tools on their websites to allow allergy sufferers to filter the menu for dishes that fit their needs.
But no amount of technology can fix the issue of cross-contamination. On this, Mr Whiteside said there was more work to be done.
“None of us are clear around what guarantee you can give around cross-contamination. We all put the disclaimer on, but I don’t think that’s acceptable in the long run.”