What are food allergens and how are they a risk to your business?
A food allergen is a food substance which is usually safe to consume but causes an allergic reaction in certain people. This can be a serious reaction and is different to a sensitivity or intolerance. When someone has a food allergy, their immune system is detecting the allergen as a threat, going into overdrive to deal with it.
In the UK, the 14 most common food allergens are:
- Cereals containing gluten
These allergens are commonly highlighted on food packaging if they are present, or there is a risk of cross contamination in the manufacturing process. For example, you might see the phrase ‘may contain nuts’ crop up in various different products, even though there is no obvious presence of nuts in the food.
This means that the product was produced in an environment where nuts could have come into contact with the other ingredients contained in the food item. This carries a risk to individuals with a severe allergy and therefore needs to be highlighted.
What is the most common food allergy?
Some of the most common food allergies are milk, wheat, nuts, eggs and shellfish. This means that statistically, more people are at risk from an allergic reaction to these types of food than others. However, it’s important to properly consider all known allergens. Focusing on how an allergic reaction could impact a customer is far more critical.
Depending on the severity of the allergy, allergic reactions can range from rashes and swelling to breathing difficulties (anaphylaxis). Those with severe allergies usually carry around an EpiPen, containing adrenaline, to prevent extreme reactions occurring from accidental ingestion.
It is estimated that 1 in 5 people in the UK have some form of allergy and a further 1 in 100 people have an allergy to sesame. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates that there are 5-15 fatalities per year due to food allergies in the UK alone. Food allergies are now more common within the UK, due to factors such as the increased diversity in our diets and reduced Vitamin D consumption.
For these reasons, adhering to the new legislation is essential in protecting the wellbeing of your business's consumers, along with your reputation.
What causes food allergies?
A food allergy occurs when the immune system overreacts to a food or substance in a food, identifying it as a danger and subsequently causing a protective response. Although allergies generally run in families, it is not certain if a child will inherit their parent’s food allergy or whether their sibling(s) will have a similar condition.
If a food allergy is diagnosed, the best form of treatment is to avoid eating that food altogether. While some allergies such as reactions to milk and eggs can be outgrown, it is crucial that organisations within the food and drink sector label all known allergens for their consumers’ safety. As careful as consumers try to be, accidents can happen and having the correct information to hand might help to detect the presence of an allergen before it can cause harm.
For example, it would be far better for a server in a restaurant to spot a previously overlooked allergen contained in a dessert and have to inform a customer that they should order something else, than to serve it to them unknowingly and risk them having a reaction.
Introducing the new legislation ‘Natasha’s Law’
In October 2021, a new law was introduced to protect consumer safety called Natasha’s Law. The new law states that foods pre-packaged for direct sale (PPDS) will require both the name of the food and full ingredients list, with allergenic ingredients emphasised in bold or italics and in a font size above 0.9mm or 1.2mm (dependent on the size of product packaging). This regulatory change has been introduced following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who mistakenly consumed a baguette containing sesame.
Let's look at an example. A doughnut is likely to contain more ingredients than the average consumer expects. So, when that consumer selects their bag of five jam doughnuts, they might see as much as two inches of packaging surface area purely listing ingredients - and if this labelling was on one single doughnut, it would take up around the same surface area as the doughnut itself.
This means it can be easy to overlook, or not spot the crucial allergen that you’re looking for on the label. Particularly if you’re buying the food for someone else who does have an allergy, and it’s not something you’re used with looking for. Or as is often the case in our busy lives, you’re simply in a rush and scanning the label quickly. If the allergen is highlighted in bold and easy to spot, it makes it far easier to pick out the necessary information from food labels, further helping customers that might have visual impairments or dyslexia.
Which food products does the new law affect?
Natasha's Law relates to any product that falls into the PPDS category, which include food products that are pre-packed at sell point. For example, buying a pre-selected box of doughnuts falls into the PPDS category, whereas selecting the doughnuts yourself from a counter to be boxed up does not. In other words, any item that cannot be altered without adjusting or modifying the packaging is classified as PPDS. Retailers will regularly pre-bag/box products to save time during busy periods, however, it is possible that this additional preparation could result in longer service times, if some retailers elect to no longer offer PPDS products.
Keeping consumers safe is a necessity. Failing to adhere to crucial allergen labelling can be fatal to a consumer, but will also affect brand standards and could result in fines and litigation – all leading to a loss in revenue.
At Ideagen, we have seen an increase in smaller scale retailers implementing simpler Health and Safety systems to assist in managing all elements of their day-to-day operations. I have seen some great examples of allergen-considered factory and store segregation during my time in the food industry, including colour coding (including the PPE used), deep cleaning, ingredient isolation, and air flow management.
The FSA has released guidance for retailers to demonstrate if Natasha’s Law applies to you. In addition to this, it is advised to promote an ‘Easy to Ask’ campaign which provides business guidance on allergens and helps empower consumers to pursue this topic to ensure they make safe choices.
Please note, this article is aimed at UK readers and some laws are not applicable worldwide.
Join me and a panel of food industry professionals as we develop our discussion around the topic of food allergens, while delving deeper into the new packaging laws and how your business can adhere to this legislation.
Learn more about Natasha's Law
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