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Protection of allergy sufferers in a post-pandemic world

In Food Allergy Week, Michelle Victor and Jessica Harrison discuss what can be done to better protect allergy sufferers in a post-pandemic world?

Posted on 10 May 2021

The UK is now slowly lifting restrictions imposed by the Government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and many are thrilled to be back dining in busy food establishments. However, for over 2 million people living in the UK with a diagnosed food allergy, the rush to return to restaurants is not something to be taken lightly.

Food allergies are the most common cause of life-threatening anaphylaxis and for those at risk, consumers often have to place their lives in the hands of total strangers. The number of people living with allergies in the UK is rising by five per cent each year and yet an investigation conducted in 2020 revealed that one in five food samples taken by food inspectors in 2016 - 2019 contain at least one hidden allergen. This has the potential to end lives.

A welcome change being introduced in October 2021 is ‘Natasha’s Law’, a hard-fought battle brought by our client’s Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse. The law requires food businesses to provide full ingredient lists and allergen labelling on pre-packed for direct sale foods, affording a much greater level of protection to allergy sufferers when purchasing such food.

Similar measures, however, are desperately needed to bring allergy sufferers peace of mind when eating in restaurant settings. The current law stipulates that food businesses have a choice whether to communicate their allergen information in writing or orally, providing that a readily discernible notice exists ‘at the place where the intending purchaser chooses that food’.

In practice, this has resulted in allergen information being displayed on signs in non-conventional places with a minimalistic approach being taken to menu designs.  This often leaves allergy sufferers to rely on the product knowledge and expertise of employees and can provide a false sense of security when no allergens are identified on the menu. A law mirroring that of Natasha’s Law for those eating in a restaurant setting could provide lifesaving knowledge for those who need it most. We represent the family of Owen Carey who are campaigning for further change in this area but what more could be done to better protect allergy sufferers in a post-pandemic world?

Training and Awareness

Now that restaurants are re-opening after a long period of closure, refreshed allergy training for staff members handling food is vital. Food businesses are likely to be extremely busy, creating a high-pressured, stressful environment for their staff. This could lead to mistakes being made at the expense of lives.

Good training should be robust and informative providing a clear understanding of: 

  • The effects allergens can have on the body
  • The current law and company policies for allergen information
  • How to avoid cross-contamination
  • How to clearly and accurately communicate allergen information.

‘Ghost Kitchens’ and ‘Instagram Bakers’

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the rise of ‘ghost kitchens’ due to a boom in online food delivery. The term describes food businesses which only provide meals through food delivery services but do not operate from a restaurant or takeaway as one would expect. Instead, orders are being made in shared industrial kitchens or even people’s homes. Similarly, there has also been a huge rise in home bakers selling meals and sweat treats made in their kitchen via social media platforms.

Both ‘ghost kitchens’ and ‘Instagram bakers’ pose a substantial risk to consumers, as many are failing to register as food businesses. As a result, such businesses are not receiving inspections where they would be judged on their food safety, ability to provide accurate allergen information and ability to handle and manage food allergens adequately in their kitchen from their local environmental health officers. Furthermore, it seems that those who have registered their business in the pandemic are faced with long delays before inspections are taking place or they are being conducted via video call, which cannot provide an accurate picture of a business’s premises.

Such food businesses are clearly unsafe for consumers. The law needs to be changed to ensure that food business cannot trade until they have been inspected and similarly, third party food delivery websites should take increased responsibility by refusing to advertise businesses awaiting inspection.

Enforcement

Enforcement for allergy law and policy is currently spread across 353 local authorities and the FSA, leading to an inconsistent approach when it comes to the scrutiny of non-compliance for food businesses. This is exacerbated by significant government funding cuts, leaving those enforcing breaches with minimal resources to do so effectively. Without effective deterrents, including thorough inspections to prevent food safety breaches occurring in the first instance, it seems likely that we will see increased numbers of enforcement proceedings for businesses and a further increase of injury by food allergy sufferers. 

Worryingly, it seems smaller businesses with less resources are receiving fiercer punishment when breaching allergy laws whilst large business corporations frequently escape prosecution. Just last week multi-national corporation, Pret-a-Manger, were found not guilty of food allergy offences after Isobel Colnaghi suffered severe anaphylaxis following the consumption of a sandwich which unknowingly contained sesame. Fortunately, Isobel survived the incident, but the incident could have easily been fatal. In a post-pandemic world, both corporations and small businesses will be seeking to make back lost profits, but their profits cannot be placed over the lives and safety of people.

As we are starting to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, a spotlight needs to be shone on the epidemic of allergies in the UK.

Food businesses focusing primarily on re-establishing their losses should keep consumer safety a top priority by ensuring that their training and employee awareness policies are meticulous.  Thorough inspections of food businesses are imperative and should be a key priority for local government bodies as the public are encouraged to revisit restaurants. Third party platforms should ban advertising for food businesses who have not yet been inspected, while further legislation is urgently needed to protect allergy sufferers eating in restaurant environments. Overall, a collaborative and revolutionary approach should be taken by food businesses and governing authorities alike to prevent further avoidable deaths and those suffering unnecessary adverse reactions.

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Michelle Victor
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Michelle Victor

Michelle is a leading consumer rights lawyer and head of the food safety team in London

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