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Consumers Need More Transparent Food Allergy Information

New Labeling Requirements in the UK

A set of significant new labeling requirements for pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) food products went into effect in the United Kingdom on October 1, 2021. The new law stems from the death of a teenager that resulted from an allergic reaction to sesame in a prepackaged baguette at a well-known food chain. It requires all companies that sell PPDS foods to provide the specific name of the food as well as a complete list of ingredients on the product label. Additionally, the label must emphasize those ingredients identified as allergenic, such as by using a font that is bold, italicized, or differently colored. For example, a pre-packed sesame shrimp pasta bowl will look something like this:

The law is designed to make PPDS food purchasing safer for the two million people that live with diagnosed food allergies in the UK. In the words of one public official, “[t]hese changes will make food labels clear and consistent and give the country’s two million food allergy sufferers confidence in making safe food choices,” The new law is part of a broader agenda by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that regulates food safety in the UK “to improve the quality of life for people living with food hypersensitivity and support them to make safe, informed food choices to effectively manage risk.” Failure to comply with the requirements of Natasha’s Law can result in monetary fines and criminal sanctions. As a result of the far-reaching consequences of Natasha’s Law, it is being discussed in all corners of the UK food sector, including trade publications, grocers, restaurants, food brands, governmental reports, and neutral observers. 

Public Conversations on Allergens in the US

The number of consumers with food allergies is increasing rapidly, and they are demanding more information. Better allergens information in turn provides retailers and brands in the US with new opportunities beyond reducing the substantial number of the deaths and injuries that result from such allergens. For example, it enables them to build brand loyalty and brand activism by taking proactive steps similar to those required under Natasha’s Law to help allergy-concerned consumers by plugging the informational gap. Doing so would enable such companies to promote the fact that they are engaging in consumer advocacy initiatives and voluntarily undertaking protective actions for the safety of their customers.  

Being a “free from” supplier is a helpful selling point that should not be underestimated. Since greater transparency gives consumers greater peace of mind, then it is reasonable to expect that those consumers will be more likely to purchase the PPDS products, have greater brand loyalty, and be more willing to publicly advocate for the brand.

Since there has been a greater legislative and regulatory focus in the US on protecting consumers from food allergens through more rigorous labeling requirements, it would not be surprising to see legislative and regulatory initiatives be modeled after or influenced by Natasha’s Law. Consumer advocates in the US have sought to provide shoppers with better data and greater transparency so that they can make more informed decisions and avoid the dangers that may be posed by allergenic foods. Undoubtedly, they will look with a keen eye at the UK’s experience with Natasha’s Law to push for greater required transparency in this country.

In the US, the FDA’s regulations currently impose labeling requirements for the top eight food allergens (i.e., milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat and soy), and, following the lead of the UK and other European countries, similar requirements with respect to the ninth (i.e., sesame) will take effect on January 1, 2023. In contrast, Natasha’s Law in the UK imposes labeling requirements with respect to the top 14 food allergens (celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulphur dioxide, sulphites, and tree nuts). 

The proponents of Natasha’s Law have suggested that the law will have many benefits. First, it will increase the safety and peace of mind of consumers who are at risk of adverse reactions to a large number of the most common allergenic foods. Second, it will increase the safety and peace of mind of consumers who are at risk of adverse reactions to allergies that are not within the top 14, because the law will require that all ingredients of the food product be listed on the label. Third, to the extent that consumer safety is enhanced, it is likely that retailers and brands may benefit from lower legal costs that might otherwise be incurred in connection with personal injury or wrongful death litigation. 

Concerns Regarding Natasha’s Law

As a result of the high stakes involved, the FSA is attempting to assist retailers and brands to achieve timely compliance with Natasha’s Law and to implement the operational procedures and training necessary to do so. Notwithstanding these efforts, however, substantial problems still exist. For example, although the October 1 deadline for compliance is rapidly approaching, a recent survey found that 81% of the surveyed businesses do not believe that they are suitably prepared and 41% were not even aware of the new law.

Another recent study found that although 90% of employers acknowledged receiving ample information about the new law, 80% stated that they felt unprepared to comply. 

It is possible that the lack of preparedness is partially the result of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that affected virtually all businesses. Among the other problems identified with respect to the new law were insufficient training with respect to allergens, increased costs associated with creating new packaging, the need to obtain more information and greater transparency from suppliers, and the need to create more efficient data handling systems. The occurrence of one or more of these problems potentially could result not only in compliance failures, but also higher prices, a reduced product range, the need to change suppliers that cannot comply with ingredients-related and allergens-related informational and transparency needs, and uncertainty about whether allergens-related questions from consumers can be adequately answered. Unsurprisingly, these concerns, particularly as they relate to small businesses that are not financially able to comply, have caused many business owners to oppose the new law. However, against these concerns and risks must be weighed the tremendous health-related benefit to consumers of avoiding allergic reactions to foods and competitive advantages that proactive companies can gain in terms of achieving greater consumer confidence, loyalty, and brand advocacy.

One of the largest challenges that brands, last-mile providers, and retailers face in either complying with laws like Natasha’s Law or undertaking voluntary efforts to help consumers avoid food allergies is that they must be equipped to obtain up-to-date information about food allergens and promptly disseminate it to their employees and customers. As a result, it has been suggested that digitization of the entire food supply chain is essential, because “it is vital that the whole food supply chain has the ability to capture and access the full range of allergen data to implement the requirements of Natasha’s Law.” The ability to seamlessly capture and transmit accurate data therefore is of paramount importance.

Foodspace Can Help

Foodspace is a data partner who provides CPG brands with rich, accurate product information to power their ecommerce journey. Along with mapping complete product data across the digital shelf, Foodspace provides consumer-centric attributes that promote transparency beyond what is on the product label. Foodspace has a demonstrated history of working with allergen-friendly brands and delivering data that can be trusted by consumers of all dietary needs and preferences. 

Schedule time to learn more about what allergen data Foodspace provides.

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