COVID trends have exasperated food safety and allergen labelling risks, expert warns

Allergy-related food recalls are a growing problem in the UK. Last year, a report from law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain (RPC) found allergen recalls rose 20% in 2019 to a five-year high in the country.

The high-profile allergy related death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after an allergic reaction to a Pret A Manger baguette, also saw the introduction of Natasha’s Law, which will come into force one year from this month. The law will require all food prepared and packaged in advance for customers to carry the ingredient and allergens list on the label.

But that was 2019 – 2020 is a different story. The profound impact of the COVID-19 crisis and the introduction of lockdown restrictions has transformed the food sector.

As businesses struggle to stay afloat in the wake of unparalleled channel disruption – including the almost complete halt of the foodservice sector – they have sought new routes to market. Online sales, direct-to-consumer models and dark kitchens have gained relevance to a customer base confined to their homes.

While sights are set on making up for lost earnings, experts are warning businesses not to let food safety standards slip.

Kirstie Jones, environmental health officer at Navitas Safety – a consultancy specialising in digital food safety management, compliance and training – is concerned some of the current trends we are seeing could have life threatening impacts.

“Food safety standards and laws, such as the EU FIC Regulation, are in place for a reason. This isn’t just additional paperwork and red tape getting in the way of your business and its earnings, but rather a way to protect the health, wellbeing and, in some cases, lives of your customers,”​ she stressed.

Are you ready for Natasha’s law?

For Jones, allergen labelling – or lack thereof – is an ‘area of particular concern’.

“To combat the issue, new legislation known as Natasha’s Law is coming into force in October 2021. The law will change the way food businesses are to provide allergen labelling information for Prepacked Direct Sale (PPDS) food. It will require the name of the item and a full ingredients list with emphasised allergenic ingredients to be displayed on the packaging of all PPDS foods.”

And while 2021 might seem a lifetime away in these turbulent times, Jones believes businesses need to start preparing for the changes now. Businesses should be planning ahead to ensure they are ready to meet the requirements as failure to do so could result in prosecution, reputational damage and even forced closures.

Slipping standards? From dark kitchens to home bakeries

Worryingly, the new trends accelerated by COVID are failing to meet the standards already in place, let alone those in the pipeline, Jones warned, highlighting a jump in the number of so-called dark kitchens as case in point.

Dark kitchens are food preparation sites that are separate to a restaurant or recognised establishment where food is prepared, packaged and delivered to customers often through apps such as JustEat and Uber Eats.

Jones suggested while a majority of dark kitchens are well managed by large, reputable companies or aggregators, some are not — and it’s these that are putting customers at risk.

“The problem is that we are much less aware of the origin of foods, and the process steps that it has been through, meaning all traceability is lost.

“There are usually little to no controls in place so allergen information can also be missed, causing issues with inaccuracies. Legally, an operator is not allowed to tell a customer that they are unsure of the allergenic content of any food produced and available on the menu.”

Similarly, there has been increasing uptake in home bakeries and other food businesses that use platforms, such as Instagram, to set up shop and establish direct-to-consumer sales.

“These new ventures must meet the same food safety standards as any other food establishment,”​ Jones stressed.

“Regardless of the quantity of products being sold or whether orders are just being made by friends and family, allergen management is a huge responsibility, and one that must be taken seriously.

“Put simply, allergen information needs to be accurate and readily available. There needs to be one chosen method that is implemented consistently to avoid instances of providing inaccurate information that may cause an allergy sufferer to become ill or even die from a severe reaction.”

Established restaurants and other food producers who are embracing online need to ensure that they provide adequate food safety and allergen information and various points.

“For online sales, allergen information must be available at the point of selection and the point of delivery… And at the point of delivery, consideration must be given to how the information will be communicated, whether this be stickers with the full list of ingredients or provision of a physical menu.”

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