Dr Siân Astley is Senior Research and Communications Manager at EuroFIR, a Brussels-based independent non-profit organisation. EuroFIR was set up in 2009 with the purpose of developing, publishing and sharing food composition information and promoting international cooperation and harmonisation of standards.

We asked Dr. Astley for her views on the Natasha’s Law legislation.

What do you think the greatest challenges are in implementing Natasha’s Law?

Across society and within the food industry, there is massive misunderstanding around food allergy food intolerances and food preferences. There is not enough appreciation of the difference between people who are perceived as being ‘fussy’, people who have got an intolerance, which whilst it may have a significant impact on their life, it is not life-threatening and those who are food allergic, like Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, for whom it is a matter of life and death.

We tend to talk about food businesses and how Natasha’s Law applies to them but within the food industry, we have lots of different companies, all forming different parts of the chain. Each business has to meet different requirements as part of the chain and we need to ensure that companies all work together to ensure that food lines are safe and the information being provided to the next stage of the chain and ultimately to the consumer is accurate.

Modern production lines are big operations and to ensure compliance with this legislation, they will need to have all their processes robustly in place and monitored, to keep theose clean and keep them safe.

There is also the cost and expertise involved in implementation of this legislation. The simple fact is that in Europe, in most cases, over 90% of the food industry manufacturers are SMEs. It’s a lot easier for larger global manufacturers to put their stops and checks in place. It is vastly more challenging for a small manufacturer who is already struggling to keep up with the requirements and the margins and the outputs. They need to go externally to ensure they have information in a way that is meaningful for them, for example their trade association or from a site like this.

The other big watch out for companies selling PPDS food is that the food industry changes formulations on a reasonably regular basis. If these are not correctly captured in ingredient information and then onto labels, it has the potential to cause tremendous problems for consumers who have a food allergy.

What other measures do you think are needed to help support the food industry in managing the risk of allergens to consumers?

Greater education would be a big priority for me, I would like to see a number of elements to this.

Firstly, there is an ongoing need for lay expertise, for example from people like the Anaphylaxis Campaign, for parents to engage the food industry and the media to talk about what the issues are, in a more public dialogue. In a way that is tremendously difficult because the food industry looks like they’re on the defensive when what they are trying to do is explain the challenges they have to address and their point of view.

Secondly, there’s education and training for those who work in the food industry. On what the legislation means for their role and for the information they need to check and pass on to ensure the integrity of the food labelling process. Food producers needs to make sure they understand their responsibility at each stage of the chain and that everyone working for them does too.

Thirdly, I believe there’s a need for more support and education for people who have allergies, particularly during their teenage years.

Young children with allergies don’t tend to make their own food choices – that’s done for them by a parent or carer. Adults make decisions for themselves and are experienced enough to know what to ask when trying anything new.

It is harder for teenagers, when they are making choices that are new to them. We see this with lots of teenagers who have health conditions to manage. They can be mortified to have to ask questions or behave in a way that highlights anything that makes them ‘different’. So we have to look at who is most at risk and how we support them. Labelling of PPDS foods helps, because the information will be visible rather than having to ask for it.

How can food producers ensure the integrity of the stock being supplied to them?

Companies need to be scrupulous in their stops and checks and look at how they can minimise the risk of anything being either inadvertently or deliberately not declared further up the food chain.

Steps that food producers can take include working closely with reputable suppliers, who are accredited or members of trade organisations which support the ethical supply chain. They also need make sure their suppliers understand any requirements such as Natasha’s Law, that change the level of information that is to be provided to consumers.

There are regulations for example trading standards, in that a product should be fit for purpose and be what it says it is. However there are cases for example where food fraud can occur and monitoring and preventing this is an important part of enforcement by the Food Standard Agency.

Interestingly within the research environment, there is more and more emphasis on sustainable, local food chains. As well as ensuring that the food chain is sustainable from the point of view of climate and nutrition, sustainable food is also about food safety. That’s not just the microbiological food safety, but also food safety from the point of view of whether or not you’ve got an allergen in there.

EuroFIR works with other organisations across the world. What could we learn from them about allergen identification and labelling?

Well it’s interesting to see the variations across the world when it comes to allergens and to ensuring transparency around information to consumers.

For example, we don’t have a global symbol to show there are allergens being present in a food, nevermind having individual symbols for individual allergens. There are also differences in lists of allergens between Europe, the US and Canada and other countries, largely because of the traditional difference in our diets. So there is a risk for people when travelling to other countries or when communicating in a different language. That is something I would like to see change.

Dr Siân Astley is Senior Research and Communications Manager at EuroFIR, a Brussels-based independent non-profit organisation. EuroFIR was set up in 2009 with the purpose of developing, publishing and sharing food composition information and promoting international cooperation and harmonisation of standards.