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Food Labelling

Volume 793: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Food and Animal Welfare on UK food labelling and allergy-related deaths. The Statement is as follows:

“First, Mr Speaker, I wanted to say how deeply upsetting the deaths of Celia Marsh and Natasha Ednan-Laperouse are and that my heart goes out to their families, friends and loved ones affected by those tragedies. This House will appreciate that investigations into Celia Marsh’s death are ongoing, and it would be inappropriate for Ministers to make further comment on that particular incident at this stage.

Honourable Members should be under no doubt how seriously we take these issues. It is essential that all UK consumers have complete trust in the food that they are eating. Current food labelling law is set out in the EU’s food information to consumers legislation. This legislation includes a list of 14 allergens, including milk and sesame, which are legally considered to be mandatory information that must be available to consumers. The regulations currently allow for some flexibility at a national level as to how this information is provided on food that is not pre-packed and on that which is pre-packed for direct sale. The former includes products such as loose cookies, or sandwiches that are prepared and wrapped directly for the customer. The latter category—pre-packed for direct sale—includes products such as freshly prepared sandwiches made on site, compared to packaged food such as a chocolate bar or ready meal that you find in a supermarket.

I must make absolutely clear that under the current regulations information must be made available to the consumer in all cases. However, whereas packaged food must include all allergens in bold in the ingredients list, information about non-pre-packed food, as well as pre-packed food for direct sale, can be made available by any means that the operator chooses. This includes the use of clear signs indicating that the customer should speak to a member of staff who will provide the information orally.

As the Secretary of State announced at the start of this year, we have been looking at developing new approaches to food labelling to ensure that consumers have the information they need. The death of Natasha has shone a harsh spotlight on the issue of allergen labelling in particular and whether the current framework is still suitable. Natasha’s parents have made a powerful case for change, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the tremendous grace and strength that they have shown in these particularly challenging circumstances.

The Secretary of State has asked the department for urgent advice on how we can strengthen the current allergen labelling framework. That review is under way, and Defra is working closely with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Health and Social Care. This morning we received the coroner’s report into Natasha’s death and we will study it very carefully as part of that review. Tomorrow Defra is holding talks with the devolved Administrations to see what approach they may wish to take, as this is a devolved matter.

We take this issue very seriously. I can assure honourable Members that we are working at pace to review the current rules and will set out our proposed way forward as soon as possible”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating that response and echo him in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and family of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and Celia Marsh, who both died tragically following fatal allergic reactions.

In Natasha’s case, she had been reassured that the baguette she had purchased was safe for her to eat by the lack of specific allergen information on the packaging. Unbeknown to her, it contained sesame, to which she was allergic. Celia Marsh died after consuming food labelled as dairy-free which was found to contain dairy protein.

As these cases demonstrate, it is imperative that food labelling is both accurate and complete. At present, however, UK food regulations relating to allergen information appear to be seriously lacking, resulting in entirely avoidable deaths. It is clear that we need urgent change to the current legislation.

As the Minister explained, under the current rules, foods packaged on-site before sale do not require a specific allergen label attached. Natasha’s parents have been campaigning to change food labelling laws, which they describe as having played “Russian roulette” with their daughter’s life. Will the Minister commit to amending the regulations to require all produce to be individually labelled with allergen and ingredient information, and will he ensure that such information is meaningful? It is not enough to have a default warning placed on all products, such as the unhelpful “may contain nuts” warning, which appears to be more about protecting businesses from liability than assisting the consumer to make an informed assessment of whether an item is safe for them to consume. This is a public health issue which should have the protection of the welfare and lives of allergy sufferers at its heart.

Finally, I should also be grateful if the Minister could clarify the responsibility of suppliers involved in the manufacture and preparation of food in relation to allergy labelling. Celia Marsh died after consuming guaranteed dairy-free flatbread at Pret A Manger. Although the inquest has not yet been held, I am aware that CoYo, which manufactures the dairy-free coconut yoghurt used in the flatbread prepared by Pret, disputes that its produce was contaminated.

There is a danger of blame being passed up and down the line here, which raises important questions about checks in the supply chain. Can the Minister make clear who is ultimately responsible for the content and accuracy of labelling in such cases, where a number of suppliers and subcontractors are involved? I look forward to his response.

My Lords, I echo a great deal of what the noble Baroness said. The urgency of this is imperative. The Secretary of State has been in touch with Natasha’s parents. Obviously, we want to ensure that what happened to Natasha, and her parents, wider family and loved ones, does not happen again. That is why the review will be urgent. We will be working closely with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Health and Social Care and, as I said in the Statement, we will be communicating with the devolved Administrations tomorrow. We will look at the coroner’s report in Natasha’s case, which was received this morning. I should say that in the case of Celia Marsh, as the noble Baroness alluded to, not only is the coroner’s investigation in process but there is a legal dispute between Pret A Manger and CoYo. In those circumstances, I should not want to go any further on that case.

I assure your Lordships that, whether it is suppliers or retailers, the importance of this, as the noble Baroness outlined, is that it is a public health matter. People in this country, particularly those with allergies, should have the right information to know whether something is safe for them to eat. The FSA has campaigned on this over a considerable period. It is not only about raising awareness and issuing guidance for businesses but raising awareness among people with allergies that they must ask—because, as I said, the requirement is that all shops should be in a position to advise the consumer by signs and verbally. I assure your Lordships that we shall look at this with rigour and urgency.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question this afternoon, and extend my sympathies to the families of Celia and Natasha. I declare my interest as a lifelong coeliac, so I understand completely the implications of inaccurate food labelling. All consumers must be able to trust that food labelling is comprehensive and correct. It is simply unacceptable, after taking the time to read through the list of ingredients, subsequently to find that an ingredient has been inaccurately recorded or omitted.

I highlight a slightly different aspect of this matter. As the Minister reiterated, the Statement refers to freshly prepared food and the need to check with members of staff before buying. I know from experience that staff are not always aware of exactly which foods contain allergens. Although training is much better than it was, cross-contamination can still occur in some cases.

I am really pleased that the Minister said that the Food Standards Agency is to be involved, but I should like him to reassure us that, following these tragic events, as well as food labelling being a top priority, the handling of food to prevent cross-contamination will be included in the review of advice currently taking place. This is now an urgent priority, before there is any more unnecessary suffering.

My Lords, that is imperative and, as I said, we are working with all those involved. I should say that the FSA has responsibility for allergen labelling; that is precisely why it is an essential part of the review. The noble Baroness rightly refers to training of staff. Again, businesses are in all circumstances under a duty. We must ensure—this is one of the key areas of enforcement—that all businesses are mindful of their responsibilities. All producers of food and food products should be mindful of cross-contamination. That concerns food safety more generally, but these are all areas which we take very seriously.

My Lords, I follow the two noble Baronesses in extending my condolences to the families, because this is a great tragedy that could have been avoided had the information been available. My sister suffers, although not to that degree, from a problem with nuts, and it is extremely difficult to find out whether nuts have been involved somewhere along the line in the production of any food.

Perhaps, when the review comes to a conclusion, it will set national standards so that we do not fall into the gap of when it was “best before” to sell food by or recommended by a date to be sold. It should be clearly set out what is or is not included in that food. My slight, perhaps personal, fear is that different manufacturers or food producers will put a different aspect on the labelling. We need clearly identifiable labelling that everybody will be able to understand.

My Lords, nuts are one of the 14 allergens; the labelling law as set out in the EU’s food information to consumers legislation includes nuts, and is therefore considered to be mandatory information that must be available to consumers. As one of the 14 allergens, nuts must be included in information.

My Lords, I feel that I should know the answer to this question myself, but excuse me for asking it. Are the Government planning or funding any research into these food allergies that seem to be an epidemic nowadays? Certainly when I was in general practice, there were very rare cases—they hardly ever happened. Now we hear about them on a weekly basis. Are the Government tackling this at the source?

I thank the noble Baroness. I think I should discuss this with my noble friend in the Department of Health and Social Care, but clearly the noble Baroness is absolutely right. We are always hearing of those who have allergies, and indeed many friends and relations. This is a very important area, and I will write to the noble Baroness about what work is going on through government and through private and charitable sources. And, of course, as is normal, I will place a copy in the Library.