In an interview designed to provide insights to the changes and challenges facing the food industry when it comes to introducing new regulations, we spoke to Rachel Ward, Scientific Policy Director at the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST).

 

Rachel, tell us about the changes facing UK food businesses in 2021?

There’s obviously been huge pressure on the food industry in the last year. Not being allowed to open, having to pivot and maybe sell differently – very challenging. This is on top of the fact that in every food business operation there is always change to manage.

In 2021, the introduction of Natasha’s Law brings greater focus on regulating the risks of allergens to the consumer.

Under normal operating conditions, there’s a certain amount of change that a food business can absorb and still operate. The challenges we’ve had to manage in the last 12 months and will have to manage in the coming two to three years is an unprecedented amount of regulatory change, supply chain change and operational model change.

If you look at a restaurant, for example, who might have pivoted to essentially being a ready meals manufacturer, they have no practical experience and little in-house expertise on packaging and labelling for prepacked foods. Suddenly they’ve gone from needing to declare allergens at a qualitative level by name to needing to create an accurate compliant ingredient declaration with all the right legal terms for additives and ingredients, and the allergens highlighted in a particular way.

It’s a big step change for them to meet these ingredients labelling requirements as well as needing to put on the correct durability date, perhaps labelling countries of origin, and providing storage and use instructions for their customers.

What is your advice to businesses on how to prepare for Natasha’s Law?

Both existing providers of PPDS food and businesses who have pivoted to that model of sale, now have new labelling regulatory requirements to be met and that’s very hard to do overnight. They need to establish that capability within their organisation and access the tools and toolkits that are available for them such as those e-learning tools and guides from the FSA, Food Standards Scotland and sites like this.

“Every food business and operation need to revisit their allergen training for their entire staff, right up to the Chief Executive to understand the significance of food allergens” 

There are different levels of challenge here – food businesses need to ensure awareness and understanding around food allergens, and then implement appropriate guidance or safety practices that provide strong systemic protective barriers to allergen incidents arising. There are situations where food allergens are being served that are wholly preventable because those working in a business do not understand food allergy and they do not have protective risk management procedures in place.

We know the numbers of consumers who have food allergies in the UK. It’s 2 to 5% of children. It’s at least 1%, possibly 2% of adults, depending on the allergen. When I provide training, I ask people to look around the room and say, who has a food allergy or has a child or partner with a food allergy?

Think of that person, because that’s who you could kill or seriously injure if an allergen is missed out on a label or the wrong ingredient is used.

Do you think there is a lack of understanding about the danger allergens can pose?

Yes. I would say there is a fundamental lack of understanding that food allergens are a serious safety issue. Thankfully, we do have great risk management best practices in the food sector – we make millions of units of food on a daily basis and we manage food safety very well. For example, we’ve got great hygiene practices but people don’t always appreciate the seriousness of food allergens as a part of these. People take glass very seriously in food factories and food establishments to the point that they specifically control its use and monitor that this is done well. They don’t have to say that their food product may contain glass. Allergens should be treated no differently.

If an allergen is in a product and not declared clearly that it is present, you will harm somebody. This awareness and active inclusion within your risk management system is something you should be doing – integrated with all of the other things that you’re already doing. The information you’re collecting for your label, the cleaning practices that you’re doing, the segregation and management that you do. You just have to layer allergen control into the existing food safety and hygiene frameworks with the right level of concern and attention to detail.

This includes when something’s gone wrong. We need to apply the same root cause analysis to allergen incidents that we would do if we were getting bits of glass or plastic in the food product. We review, we apply corrective and preventive actions and we revisit to confirm its effective on-going.

How do food operators best position themselves to manage that risk?

The only way that the food system can deliver the necessary level of accurate risk communication to consumers is by making sure they have the right product declarations, pertinent to the composition of the product. All allergenic ingredients have to be declared correctly. If there is a genuine risk of cross-contamination which can’t be managed to an acceptable level, then put a may contain statement on your product. But this decision-making approach must be consistent across the food sector – otherwise consumer will just ignore that risk advice.

With Natasha’s Law, the problem with pre-packed for direct sale foods was that a consumer would go to an airport or a train station. Multiple food outlets such as Boots, Tesco, Pret â Manger, Costa and so on would all have sandwiches being sold within a sealed pack. If it’s pre-packed and pre-made, I can’t change the contents to suit my needs. I need that information to be on the label so I can choose not to have a certain sandwich, but to have another one instead. Natasha’s Law will provide consistent information at point of sale for all pre-packed products for consumers with food allergies and intolerance to make a safe choice. It’s actually as simple as that.

You talk about the need for greater understanding. Can you explain what you mean here in more detail?

Every place you stand across the food system, there should be a common understanding of what have I got in terms of the individual things I use to produce food, which are considered allergens and what this might mean for a consumer.

This means looking at all your raw materials to understand their composition – what’s in that pre-mix, that seasoning or sauce, the flour you buy. Then look at the way you make the product and where you make it – is there potential for cross-contamination. How do you manage that risk? And therefore, what do you need to tell the consumer? Do you need to say ‘may contain’ or can you manage that risk out through good practices using segregation and cleaning?

For example, if you want to put sesame into a bread bun because it adds great flavour, you need to let people know. That doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t be creative or make an innovative product. You just need to educate the consumer and make it really clear in the risk communication provided with the food – especially if it’s a really creative unusual use of an allergenic ingredient. The consumer might not be expecting to find fish in a salad dressing for example.

Is there a role for the consumer in terms of raising awareness of the risk too?

There is definitely misunderstanding among consumers on what an allergy is versus for example intolerance or an aversion to a food. It is known that 1 to 2% of adults genuinely have an IgE mediated food hypersensitivity that will significantly and adversely impact their health to the point of anaphylaxis. Likewise, around 1 in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, unable to tolerate gluten with impaired absorption of nutrients and significantly increased risk of some cancers. Lactose intolerance affects around 5% of UK consumers, but can affect 90-100% of those individuals with Asiatic or Black heritage.

Interestingly, up to 20% of consumers believe they have a food intolerance or allergy when that’s not always the case. You have the potential scenario where somebody goes into a restaurant and says to the waiting staff they are milk allergic. Then they get to the pudding section and they have a look and there’s a fabulous cheesecake which they choose. The chef’s gone to all the trouble of making milk allergy suitable products for their entire meal, and the same person then orders the cheesecake! This creates confusion and perpetuates the belief that allergies are just people being fussy. So, the problem we’ve got is that the public are inadvertently fueling misunderstanding of the difference between a genuine and serious risk to health versus personal preference.

What other challenges does the industry face regarding implementation?

A lot of the change over the last 20 years in the food industry has come about because consumers are wanting new flavours and new interesting foods from across the world and to be able to buy all the types of foods they want – 52 weeks of the year. This demands more diverse and global supply chains. One challenge here is that the food allergies and therefore the food allergens requiring labelling in countries are different.

This is for a genuine reason as there are different prevalences of food allergy in different country populations. However, you also get the complicating factor that different countries have different allergen labelling rules even for those allergies that are commonly found all around the world.

For example, in South Korea and in Japan, they have a lot of buckwheat allergy in their population. So, their labelling legislation requires the mandatory food labelling declaration of buckwheat, whereas in Europe we do not. As another example, in the USA, they don’t use goat or sheep’s milk very often in their dairy products. The milk allergen labelling doesn’t include goat or sheep’s milk only cow’s milk. So if you’re milk allergic in the USA, you could find a sheep’s milk ingredient that wouldn’t be labelled milk on the product. This makes it really complicated for supply chains and information sharing.

If you’re a food operator, you need to ask specifically about the ingredients, instead of just sending suppliers a list to tick, you need to ask the question a different way and say, tell me what’s present. For every component, are any of these allergenic foodstuffs present intentionally, or is there a risk of cross-contamination of that ingredient. If you just send a tick list, you will not get enough detail to create a legal label.

How well placed is the industry to face these challenges?

My view is that in catering and in hospitality, the companies that are going to be most impacted by the pre-packed for direct sale changes already do legal compliance around hygiene really well. The best approach is to think about how this change in labelling legislation can align that with their good hygiene practices. For example, the hygiene regulation demands that they have a supplier management programme, that they have risk assessed their raw materials and therefore risk assessed their supply base.

This comes down to good manufacturing practice, good hygiene practice and risk management systems. Communication on food allergens and food safety status, critical information passing along every single step down the supply chain, is going to be the barrier to success in complying with this change in legislation.

What companies need to make sure now is that they are prepared to collect the necessary information from suppliers and pass it on to consumers in a way that accurately describes the product and its risk. Operators have already been asking for this information to a degree, because they already had a legal obligation to declare allergens verbally. 

IFST is an internationally respected independent professional body, supporting food technical professionals through communities of practice, knowledge sharing and professional recognition. In 2020 and 2021, this includes supporting businesses in managing new protocols as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as preparing them for the introduction of the Natasha’s Law food labelling regulations.