Food and catering businesses are coming under increasing regulatory scrutiny for failures to communicate allergen risks to customers. This can cause legal and reputational damage, as a number of recent regulatory prosecutions demonstrate.
Food allergy law
Much of the law concerning food allergen labeling in the UK derives from EU law. The EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation (FIC 2011) recognizes 14 allergens, including celery, milk, fish, nuts and sesame seeds.
FIC 2011 also outlines the required format for presenting allergen information. Packaging must bear the name of the food and all allergens present in the food must appear in the ingredients list. Allergens must be emphasized (for example, by way of bold font, italics or color). For non-prepacked food, allergens may be highlighted by any means, including verbally or through menus, labels and signs.
Food business operators are responsible for complying with labeling requirements, with failure to supply allergen information carrying criminal penalties. The EU Food Information Regulations 2014 impose an unlimited fine for breach of allergen labeling requirements (although in practice, the fines imposed are based on numerous factors, including the revenue of the business).
Recent news stories show the grave implications of poor allergy signposting.
In December 2017, Pret A Manger (Pret) was charged with food safety failures for selling a sandwich – labeled “vegan” – that was contaminated with milk protein, to a woman who later died due to a severe allergic reaction to dairy. Although the prosecution was dropped due to insufficient evidence, the inquest, which took place in September 2022, highlighted serious supply chain food testing deficiencies.
Pret was also charged in November 2017 with selling food with incorrect allergen information, contrary to section 14 of the Food Safety Act. In this case, a student suffered an allergic reaction to a sandwich containing sesame after a Pret staff member failed to highlight the allergen. The restaurant was acquitted, having claimed that its staff acted outside of its allergen procedures, despite training. This ultimately led to the extension of allergen labeling requirements in FIC 2011 to food that is prepacked for direct sale in the UK, through the introduction of “Natasha’s Law.”
The courts have also not shied away from penalizing restaurants for breaching allergen-labeling laws. The owners of Haute Dolci in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, were sentenced to pay a total of £3,635 after a woman collapsed in September 2020, having eaten food containing nuts at the restaurant where she had warned staff about her allergy.
The owner of Royal Spice in North Staffordshire was fined more than £5,000 for selling a pizza containing almond powder to a customer with a nut allergy. Owners of a takeaway in Lancashire with the same name were sentenced for manslaughter in 2017 when a customer died after her order contained peanut protein, despite her flagging her allergy. The owners successfully appealed the conviction.
Hospitality operators should ensure that systems and procedures are in place to ensure food is correctly labeled for allergens. Where food is not packaged, they should inform customers about any allergens present at the point of sale to avoid criminal charges and reputational damage.