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House of Lords Hansard
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Severe Anaphylactic Shock
26 May 2016
Volume 773

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to take to protect people at risk of severe anaphylactic shock.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham.

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My Lords, there are several causes of anaphylactic shock, ranging from bee stings to food allergies. For food, the food information regulations 2014 require pre-packed foodstuffs to highlight 14 allergens in their labelling. For non pre-packed foods, including those in restaurants and takeaways, information on the same 14 allergens must be available for customers. Informed consumers with severe food allergies can then choose to avoid those foods that put them at risk of anaphylactic shock.

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My Lords, I know the whole House will join me in offering our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Paul Wilson, who died after a severe allergic reaction to food containing peanuts from his local restaurant, despite specifically requesting no nuts. Paul’s death was needless and avoidable. I ask the Government to agree to review how food businesses can be better monitored, how staff training can be improved and how we can work better with the third sector to raise awareness and develop consumer-focused resources. Finally, has any assessment taken place of the impact of cuts on the capacity of local trading standards services to monitor and enforce food labelling legislation? If not, could this now be commissioned?

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My Lords, there were a lot of questions there. Of course, I join the noble Baroness in sending best wishes to Paul Wilson’s family after that tragic accident. That occurred in January 2014 and the new regulations came into effect in December 2014. Research by the FSA shows that there have been great improvements with food allergies since this law came in. It is up to local authorities to make sure, through their food standards operatives, that restaurants are checked and those that do not follow the law in labelling the 14 allergens as required have criminal proceedings brought against them.

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My Lords, does my noble friend accept that there has been a great increase in the incidents of allergies in our lifetime? Many of us are concerned that there does not appear to have been the amount of research necessary for us to understand the reasons for this. It is perfectly reasonable to protect people from allergies that are clear but we do not know what causes these allergies to anything like enough extent. Will the Government do more to try to help people know what they themselves can do, apart from avoiding peanuts? That is sensible in any circumstances.

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My noble friend is absolutely right: there has been a 5% increase in those suffering from allergies and half of all those affected are children. I think part of the reason for that increase in allergies being diagnosed is because diagnosis is now better. There are clinics are doing good work on making sure that allergies are well known by those who suffer from them, and that they are given treatment and advised about the right way forward in how to deal with them.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that public awareness of the dangers and what to do in the case of anaphylactic shock would help to save lives, such as in the sad case we just heard about? Does she also agree that it would be a pity if concerns about being stung prevented people keeping bees in their gardens? Bees are important pollinators and are much more interested in flowers than people. I declare an interest as a beekeeper.

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I certainly agree with the noble Baroness about bees. Education is getting much better in making businesses aware of the dangers of anaphylactic shock and those allergens. In fact, the FSA along with the charity Allergy UK produced very good technical guidance and free online training. They also produced posters, templates and leaflets in different languages, which is particularly important for fast-food outlets. There should be no reason why food outlets are not aware of the 14 allergens of which people must be notified when they buy food.

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Will the Minister please update us on the work being done on genetic modification with the aim of eliminating the peanut allergy?

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I am aware of that. This could, indeed, be very useful in the future.

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My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, while I absolutely support strong regulation to safeguard the health of people who have allergies, does the Minister agree that we have an extraordinary contrast and disparity in our attitude towards some foods that we know can be fatal and other foods, such as genetically modified crops, which two recent reports, including that of the Royal Society, have shown pose no danger whatever to public health?

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What the noble Baroness says is very true. I cannot add much to that because I agree with it.

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My Lords, I declare my presidency of the Royal Society for Public Health. The noble Baroness referred to the FSA’s review of the success of the new regulations, but is she aware that the RSPH did a mystery dining investigation a year after their introduction and found that 70% of takeaway outlets were flouting the law by not providing the required information, and that 54% did not know whether any of these 14 major allergens were in the food? Will the noble Baroness go back to the FSA and suggest that it needs to take rather greater enforcement action?

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I thank the noble Lord for that question. He is right: there is still a lot of work to be done. The FSA is well aware of this. That is why it is providing food officers with better training to ensure that restaurants are following the rules. One of the key messages for these businesses is that they will incur much greater burdens and cost if they do not follow the regulations. They can be prosecuted and closed down. It is beneficial to them to ensure that the allergen information they provide is displayed clearly and is provided verbally.