Natasha was 15 when she died after eating a Pret a Manger baguette in which Sesame seeds had been baked into the dough.
Since the inquest into her death last month, there has been an outpouring of support from the media and also other victims and their families sharing their own similar stories of allergic reactions.
The Coroner, Dr Sean Cummings wrote to Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs setting out his concerns on the inadequacies of the current system of regulation seeking his response detailing the action he proposes to take to address this and a timetable for this.
A formal response is due to be given by 3 December 2018 and ahead of this, Natasha’s parents, Nadim and Tanya met with Michael Gove today to discuss their hopes for Natasha’s Law and the positive changes which are required to prevent any further tragedies from occurring.
Earlier this week, during a meeting with Natasha’s parents, Michael Gove confirmed that an internal review of food labelling laws would happen this year ahead of a consultation in 2019. The Current Sanctions Under the Food Information Regulations 2014, the primary enforcement mechanism in England for failure to comply with the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation is Improvement Notices and fines.
We have seen in recent years more significant financial penalties being imposed for breaches of food information and food safety laws by manufacturers, restaurateurs and supermarkets.
Offences have included selling food not complying with safety requirements; selling food not of the nature, substance or quality demanded and falsely describing or presenting food.
There have also been some instances where individuals have been convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned as a consequence. The issue however is who regulates how these sanctions are applied? Is there a lack of enforcement and transparency in the process?
Are penalties which are imposed consistent? Only last week it was reported that LLP Dixfield were fined a mere £2,000 for breaches of food safety regulations when a three-year-old girl suffered an allergic reaction after consuming food at a wedding containing dairy despite her parents warning them six times of her allergy.
We all know that with the tightening of government purse strings local authorities are underfunded. The number of Trading Standards Officers and Environmental Health Officers is shrinking as a consequence of these cuts and therefore enforcement in a consistent fashion is increasingly difficult.
Surely the question which needs to be answered is where is all the money from the fines which are imposed going? – is it going back to the local authorities or is it going back to central government? Some food retailers choose to have a primary authority appointed to handle all their affairs.
A primary authority enables larger food retails to form a legal partnership with a single local authority, which acts as a single point of contact that can provide advice on complying with all health and safety regulations. This cuts the need for large food retailers to liaise with several individual local authorities and the aim is to provide better protection for consumers and deliver this in an efficient way.
However, as Natasha’s case highlighted, there are issues with this approach and there is a risk that important information regarding any breaches or requirements for change of process are not handed down to the local authorities meaning some stores may implement changes and others do not.
Should there be a central register of all adverse allergies or maintain a log across the industry?
I believe this approach would highlight specific problems within the industry and/or with specific food retailers. Where despite previous warnings and/or fines a retailer fails to make sufficient changes, the directors should face personal liability and imprisonment or better still, if food retailers fail to comply with the law which is designed to protect consumers, they should be shut down altogether.
Standing alongside our clients we welcomed the announcement from Mr Gove this week and we would urge him to also consider the wider issues of regulation and sanctions. Not only does food need to be adequately labelled with all ingredients, including allergens, but consumers need to feel reassured that those who fail to comply with the law will be suitably prosecuted.
There needs to be a concerted effort by food retailers and the regulators to protect consumers at all costs.