Following the death of a teenager after she suffered an allergic reaction to a baguette bought in a high street sandwich shop chain in 2016, new regulations will come into force in October 2021, known as "Natasha's Law", to help protect food allergy and food intolerance sufferers in England and strengthen the allergy labelling regulations. It is likely that the other UK jurisdictions will follow suit once the legislation has become clear.
1. Natasha's Law: what is changing?
Natasha's Law is set to strengthen the allergy labelling regulations by requiring foods that are prepared and packaged on the site in which they are sold to label products with the full list of ingredients and allergens. The new law will include packaged sandwiches or salads assembled by staff earlier in the day and placed on a shelf for purchase. Natasha's Law is set to come into force in October 2021. The new rules will be regulated by DEFRA and apply to all food business operators, including small businesses. England has two million food allergy sufferers and it is expected that the new regulations will ensure a safe and practical approach. Failure to comply with the new regulations will attract substantial financial penalties and such a breach may carry a criminal offence.
2. What are the current allergen regulations that businesses are required to follow?
Establishments that provide food products are required to adhere to the allergen rules set out by The Food Information Regulations 2014 (the Food Regulations). The Food Regulations state that food business operators are required to list any of the 14 specific allergenic ingredients on all pre-packaged foods. However, at the moment, food prepared on the premises in which it is sold does not have to have listed all the ingredients or allergen information on a label (i.e. food that is freshly hand-made and is not pre-packed).
In Natasha's case, a baguette was prepared and packaged in an adjacent offsite kitchen. This meant that there was no obligation on the coffee shop to list the ingredients of the baguette on the packaging. Instead, food business operators can rely on stickers placed on food display units or notices on menus to advise customers that allergen information can be obtained by staff members or on the company's website.
3. How can businesses prepare to ensure compliance?
Natasha's Law will apply to any food business operator, regardless of its size, meaning that both national sandwich chains and small businesses alike will have the same requirements to display the full ingredients on their packaging. It is likely that large food chains would use electronic labelling systems, yet this could be problematic for small businesses who may incur substantial expenses to establish a labelling system to adhere to the requirements of the regulations. So, how can businesses ensure compliance?
All food business operators will have to ensure their staff are adequately trained. Employees will have to have suitable knowledge to ensure that ingredients are included and correctly recorded on labels and packaging. It is essential that members of staff, including those not involved in the preparation process, gain an understanding as to the importance of correctly recording ingredients and in allergenic controls more generally.
Invest in technology and systems
Large corporations follow set recipes that they prepare for customers. They will likely invest in an electronic labelling system, if they have not already done so. Small, local businesses are likely to incur more problems in this respect as electronic labelling systems could be unaffordable. Instead, small businesses may opt for handwritten labels. This will no doubt be time-consuming and perhaps make for less attractive packaging, as all ingredients will need to be included on the labels. Small businesses handwriting their labels will have to establish a well-organised and systematic process to ensure that all the legal requirements are met.
Whilst the new regulations may be impractical and costly, food establishments should seek to embrace change and consider the positive effects that these regulations will have on their business. The new regulations will allow those suffering from food allergies to feel more comfortable in their purchases and more likely to buy from small businesses. Embracing the regulations may positively affect businesses' reputation, driving up revenues in turn. Businesses should be welcome to change, particularly as they risk unlimited fines and criminal sanctions for non-compliance.
4. Continued guidance
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) will continue to provide assistance through guidance on the new regulations and essential information to help customers make safe choices when buying food. The FSA's "Easy to Ask" campaign, launched in September 2018, encourages those suffering from food allergies to communicate their allergies and intolerances when making purchases. It intends to reassure those sceptical of dining out to have a healthy approach when it comes to communicating their allergies.
Natasha's Law will be implemented in England in October 2021, and it is expected that the remainder of the UK will execute similar arrangements to ensure a safe and practical approach to protecting consumers with food allergies.