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Allergen Headlines – Adele’s Thoughts

Allergen headlines

Allergen Headlines – Adele’s thoughts

I really can’t imagine what it must be like to have to stop and think before you buy, order or eat each and every item of food. I think it’s very easy for those of us without allergies, me included, to take a lot for granted. It’s tragic to see young lives cut short by failures in our industry. It is our responsibility to robustly manage and communicate the significant risk that allergens pose. Consumers also have a responsibility to speak up and be persistent if they feel they are not taken seriously when requesting allergen information.

Are consumers confident in asking about allergen information?

Research shows that younger people are typically greater risk-takers, anyone with teenage children will know that there is a lot going on in their heads and bodies! A joint survey conducted by the Food Standards Agency, Allergy UK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign found that while 67% of 16 to 24-year-olds were aware of the legal requirement to provide accurate allergen information, only 14% felt ‘extremely confident’ asking for allergen information when eating out, and 14% reported feeling ‘not at all confident’. This is also likely to add to the risk-taking or assumption-making when allergen information isn’t clear or easily available.

Putting Allergen Controls Under the Spotlight

The recent allergy issues surrounding Pret a Manger have attracted a huge amount of media coverage and have put allergen controls under the spotlight once again. The Food Standards Agency has been very vocal in its criticism of Pret’s approach to allergen labelling, stating that “a major food retailer thought it acceptable to use the exemption that is clearly in place for small enterprises”. Although Pret was not breaking the law, they were not seen to be complying with the ‘spirit’ of the legislation and its intention of greater clarity of information for consumers.

However, I think there is a much larger issue here, that being, Pret’s lack of reaction to previously reported complaints relating to sesame reactions. Radio 4’s Food Programme also dedicated a recent episode to this topic and reported that of the 21 allergy-related complaints Pret received last year, 9 of these were concerning sesame. From what has been reported in the media, it would appear that little action was taken in response to this data. Clearly, Pret will be selling a vast number of sandwiches each and every day so from a CPMU (complaints per million units) viewpoint the figures may look negligible; however, the potential severity of consequence should surely be a strong catalyst for a review of controls. This should not turn into a witch hunt, but we should all take the learnings from this and challenge ourselves on how we use, report and react to the data that our monitoring and verification activities generate. We have some well-established, but often woefully underused, root cause analysis methods that offer valuable potential learnings and opportunities for future prevention if we invest time and effort into their effective use.

Is vegan the same as ‘free from’?

Whilst on an allergen theme, in my opinion, the significant uplift in demand for vegan products has the potential to raise more issues around allergens. This lifestyle choice trend is gaining serious traction with new product ranges being released at some pace. Products suitable for vegans may not be suitable for individuals with egg or dairy allergies, these are separate issues and it’s a potentially dangerous assumption to make that they are equivalent. The Vegan Society’s website is clear in warning consumers of this. There is no legal definition of the term vegan, however, the FSA provides voluntary guidance on the use of the terms vegetarian and vegan in food labelling, including advice about cross-contamination. Retailers are also issuing or updating their guidance, however many smaller producers may lack the detailed technical understating to appreciate, manage and communicate these significant risks.

Is allergen control part of your ‘to train’ list for this year?

Please get in touch! Our Allergen Management and Allergen Awareness sessions can help improve your allergen risk assessment and ensure your site has a clear understanding of their impact on allergen controls.

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