From 1 October 2021, the painful lessons learned from the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016, and enshrined in Law in 2019, mean food businesses have had to change their labelling practices.
No allergen advice – Pret a Manger
Natasha had an extreme allergy to sesame and had bought a Pret a Manger baguette at Heathrow Airport. The baguette had no visible sesame seeds but contained sesame in the ingredients. However, because the baguette was made on site, it was not required to display allergen advice on the packaging.
Exemption ‘against the spirit of the law’
The case was subject to an inquest which found that exemptions around labelling and allergy advice to assist small, local kitchens were being used by large franchise brands, who effectively ‘assemble’ homogenous products to a consistent specification. In these circumstances – where it related, in Pret’s case, to sales of 200m items a year – such exemption was felt to be against the ‘spirit of the law’, dangerous and, in Natasha’s case, sadly, fatal.
Prepacked for direct sale (PPDS) – full labelling
Now, thanks in part to the lobbying of Natasha’s parents, all ‘pre-packed for direct sale’ (PPDS) will require full labelling, with allergens listed and emphasised (i.e. in bold and underlined). This is to help those with hypersensitivities help make safe choices about what they consume.
The full list of 14 notifiable allergens includes: celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, lupin, molluscs, mustard, sesame, peanuts, soybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites, and nuts.
This is a hugely significant day for allergen sufferers in this country. The introduction of Natasha’s Law brings greater transparency about what people are buying and eating, lays down new standards for the food companies, and highlights the battle against the growing epidemic of allergies.
Is industry ready for the changes?
Since the Law was announced, direct-to-consumer catering services have had the Covid-19 pandemic to deal with, and concerns have been raised in some quarters about the readiness of the industry to meet these newly mandated requirements from October.
Small owner-operated businesses
It will apply to those businesses involved in preparing food-to-go, from small, independent cafés or tea-shops, to supermarkets and department stores with in-store cafes. Whilst some of the companies involved will have dedicated resources focusing on quality, safety and/or regulatory matters, many will be small owner/operators, whose passion for their food does not necessarily translate into an ability to understand and apply the regulations.
Public & products liability
From a general insurance point of view, it’s worth checking your public and products liability limits of indemnity (though these are 2 separate areas of cover, they commonly go hand-in-hand and share the same limit of indemnity). Many standard limits are inadequate to respond to a really major event, with minimum levels ranging from £1m to £2.5m. It would only take one event resulting in life-changing injuries to burn through these sums. After that, the business must fund costs and awards themselves. For many a small business, this would be crippling.
Once your business insurances are set up to weather the direct costs of such an event, the indirect costs of an actual or alleged case through reputational damage can also pose a significant threat.
Even if you have complied with Natasha’s Law, your operation may still be suspended pending the outcome of any investigation resulting from an alleged breach, and you will still need to manage the impact on the brand in the interim. Through social media, events can quickly spiral beyond your control and before you know it, if you are not careful, the best intended actions when dealing with this or your interactions with investigatory bodies can be counterproductive.
Crisis management – business resilience plan
There are steps you can take now, in relatively calm circumstances, to prepare for many worst-case scenarios. A business resilience plan should include what to do in the event of any foreseeable crisis to help limit the brand damage. Crisis management experts can help draw up pre-prepared public statements and provide training in how to deal with police and other investigating bodies, in the wake of an allergen reaction, for instance.
Talk to your insurance adviser
Your risk and insurance adviser should be in a position to help you, not only with policy and claims administration, but even more importantly, in advising you around your pre-event preparations, as well as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you in the immediate aftermath and subsequent investigations of a major incident.
Whilst these may understandably be the last thing you want to think about right now, if you find yourself under the microscope following an allergen reaction (or any other crisis event), you will be grateful for having made such preparations.
If I can give you any advice on your company’s insurance, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Gary Clifton, client partner
Chartered risk manager (North)