The danger beneath – how the high-profile Pret a Manger case is changing UK label legislation
The tragic death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, in 2016, shook the UK. It shook the public, the food industry and rippled all the way to the top, the Government. Geared by the high-profile inquest, as highlighted in Food Manufacture, the food industry in Britain looks set for a paradigm shift, maybe one that is long overdue and is unfortunately due to terrible circumstances.
The hidden killers
Natasha had purchased an artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette at Pret a Manger in Heathrow’s Terminal 5. To her, the sandwich was safe to eat, but hiding within it were allergens that triggered Natasha’s allergic response to sesame whilst aboard her flight to Nice. The packaging contained no indication of sesame allergens and, unfortunately, Natasha passed away before she could receive medical care.
Just one year later in December 2017, Celia Marsh died from a Pret a Manger “dairy free” yoghurt that was found to contain dairy proteins, causing another deadly allergic reaction that this time, unfortunately, claimed the life of 42-year-old Celia. This Implicated yoghurt supplier CoYo UK, who deny the yoghurt it supplied to Pret was contaminated with dairy proteins, although a February 2018 product recall was issued by CoYo for similar reasons.
With 44% of adults now suffering from at least one allergy and an increase of 615% in the rate of hospital admissions due to anaphylaxis in the 20 year period ending in 20121, the question remains as to why allergy information hasn’t been accurately and easily communicated with food products until tragedy has rocked the media.
Weak legislation and multi-function food production sites can pollute the supply chain
Although food producers are active in ensuring they source allergen-free products, problems can occur on the supplier side from multi-function sites. Dairy-free products are still often produced at sites that make dairy products and often don’t always have dedicated dairy-free machinery and zones. Although thorough clean downs are used to flush away any residual dairy products, unfortunately, this method isn’t always foolproof and is a leading cause of contamination.
The same can be said for every allergen-containing product and gluten, although not defined as an allergen, is a major point of concern in manufacturing. However, products containing gluten are still often produced on site allowing for contamination by workers moving between zones.
Legislation is a major factor in defining allergen products. Technically, allergen concentration thresholds are defined, by law, in order for a product to be labelled as “free from”. For gluten, this threshold stands at 20 parts per million, meaning a gluten-free product may not be entirely rid of the protein. There are only 14 defined thresholds for allergens in food products, bringing into question whether this is safe for everyone as one individual is bound to have a different sensitivity to another.
And what of those allergens that don’t have defined thresholds? Legally no detectable allergen can be found in the product, but with no standard practice of detection, this is down to the food producers and the sensitivity, or limit, to what they can detect.
It’s a large problem that requires more stringent legislation by the government, better research into the safety thresholds of allergens, carefully controlled supply chains and clearly communicated packaging. The EU packaging legislation is making a start, and it’s something all manufacturers are striving to comply with, and something that SparcEye can certainly aid as far as compliance is concerned.
At Sparc, we have developed the Raptor Label Inspector, a stand alone system, that actively inspects for allergen ID codes, along with product descriptions, bar codes, lot numbers and date codes. Designed to eliminate emergency product recalls, our system automatically rejects any mislabelled food products if errors are found on the top, bottom, lid or pot and doesn’t require operator input at product changeover.
At Sparc, we offer free assessment of your packaging and labelling and help you identify potential risks or improvements and means to comply with the existing regulations.
Furthermore, the SparcEye technology can be integrated with end of line systems such as Cerberus and Theia – offering greater compliance, safety and piece of mind.
This is only a part of the solution, however, and food producers must ensure they truly eliminate allergens from their products and their supply chains, and the legislation must enforce this.
Ultimately, allergic responses are medical emergencies that no one deserves, especially when having trusted food producers and their products.