What are food allergens and why are they a risk to your business?
01 November 2021
‘What are food allergens’ seems like a basic question, but there has historically been controversy around the definition. It can be difficult to define a categoric total of allergens, however, the United Kingdom (UK) recognises the 14 most frequent as:
- Cereals containing gluten
Taking this list into account, the food allergen definition according to ‘safe food’ is ‘any normally harmless substance that causes an immediate allergic reaction in a susceptible person’.
What is the most common food allergy?
The question 'what is the most common food allergy?' is frequently asked. However, it would also be wise to focus on what impact an allergic reaction could have on a consumer. 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, reduced Vitamin D consumption, and others.
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 it is the case that they suffer with an allergy, it is possible they could experience the allergic reactions explained in the previous section.
If a food allergy is diagnosed, the best form of treatment is to avoid consuming the food containing that specific allergen 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.
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 that contained the allergen 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.
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 effect 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 'what are food allergens', while delving deeper into the new packaging laws and how your business can adhere to this legislation.