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TRUTH IN 2018: Are we being fed facts?

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Food labelling. It’s something we see every day but probably don’t pay that much attention to, right? Why do we need it? Who actually uses it? And what happens when it all goes wrong?

You may have recently heard about the huge scandal with Pret-A-Manger and their food labelling, where many people have become ill and in some cases have died from the inadequate labelling.

15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse tragically died back in July 2016, when travelling on a British Airways flight to France with her father. Natasha suffered a fatal allergic reaction to undisclosed sesame in a sandwich she had purchased from the chain. Despite following all safety recommendations, being well informed regarding her allergy and carrying her EpiPens, nothing could be done to save her.

So the question is: what went wrong? Pret-A-Manager currently doesn’t label all of its freshly prepared products with allergens, however, it provides an allergen guide online and in-store, where customers are directed to staff for further information regarding the product.

The issue with the sandwich that ultimately lead to Natasha’s death was that the sesame, not advertised as an allergen or visible from the packaging, was in fact baked inside the bread. Her death could have easily been avoided if the ingredient was highlighted on the label like is the case with many other retailers.

Image courtesy of Choilocif

It is thought Pret doesn’t print allergy labels in order to protect their ‘fresh, clean living’ image, not wanting to disclose any extra ingredients that may go into their products. But whilst it may promote their healthy image, they’re also tarnishing it every day that yet another person falls ill. How many of their staff have full allergen training? Can they guarantee the food hasn’t been cooked or cross-contaminated with any allergens? And allergens aside, what about their general audience? What is actually going into their products…?

Pret has recently announced (November 2018) that it will trial a pilot in a few of its stores with full allergy labelling. But how exactly will it measure success? There has been an outcry over the brand's response, with many urging Pret to do more and ultimately pushing Natasha’s Law – the bill seeking to require labelling of ALL prepared products with an allergen label. It’s hoping to come into effect by 2019, but after Pret’s recent statement on just ‘trialling’ the law, some question if it will it be welcomed by businesses as much as it really needs to be.

The law

It is currently the law that restaurants and takeaways must label and provide information on the 14 major allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, egg, sesame, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, fish, soybean, milk, celery, mustard, sulphites, lupin and molluscs. Foods currently prepared on site, however, do not fall into the allergen labelling guides, with the Food Standards Agency stating that “In these situations, it is thought that the customer would be able to speak to the person who made/packed the foods to ask about ingredients and so these foods do not generally have to be labelled with ingredients by law. Foods which could fall under this category are meat pies made on site, and sandwiches made and sold prepacked or not pre-packed from the premises in which they were made.”

This has not only sparked worries regarding purchasing food from Pret, but other retailers who pre-package their food on site too. What are we eating? How safe are we with these products? And how educated are staff members?

The battle

The call for Natasha’s Law is widely welcomed by allergy sufferers and families who have lost loved ones as a result of mislabelling. But how about the impact on businesses? How far and how much pressure will this law add to those companies, small and large, with changing ways, employing extra staff to create the labelling and the cost implications of it too? But surely, the cost of a life is far greater than any other cost to a company.

This is still a very raw and new campaign, but the discussion is there to be had. For now, read the labels, ask questions and avoid any risks where you can. Will companies suffer from having to label allergens or will people with allergies suffer from continued poor labelling? The battle continues...

This article is part of The National Student’s 'TRUTH IN 2018' content series, led by Josh Stewart. You can see more from the content series here

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