Correct food labelling is of utmost importance in the food industry, keeping consumers safe and minimising their – rightfully severe – concerns with regards to allergen contamination.
Given that an estimated two million people suffer from a food allergy in the UK alone, inaccurate food labelling can have disastrous consequences: one need only cast their mind to the distressing incident that prompted the introduction of Natasha’s law.
There is, therefore, a high level of responsibility on the shoulders of food manufacturers, whose priority should be to implement reliable procedures dedicated to protecting consumers.
Amongst those striving to keep this matter at the forefront is UK engineering firm adi Group. Here, Ian Hart, business development director of adi Projects (www.adiltd.co.uk), one of adi’s subdivisions, discusses the procedures and risks associated with the food manufacturing process and allergen labelling requirements.
What are the regulations surrounding allergen labelling in the UK?
The laws regulating food labelling for manufacturers vary depending on the food that is produced. Producing pre-packed food – food that is packaged prior to being sold – requires compliance with the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIC) of 2014, which covers and simplifies mandatory labelling regulations.
The regulation states that all pre-packaged food must have a complete ingredients list with a predetermined minimum font size, as well as a nutrition declaration. There are also 14 main allergens that must be included on the label, if present. These must be emphasised in some way, such as being listed in bold.
The law resulted in a more standardised and consistent way of presenting food labels to consumers, which in turn made them easier to read and interpret.
And the introduction of the regulation, coupled with the subsequent increase in demand of ‘free from’ food driven by the rise in expectations from consumers to be able to find safe products with more ease, resulted in even higher standards of control in food factories.
However, there was still a great deal of work to be done, as was sadly proved by the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who suffered an allergic reaction to an allergen in a pre-packed sandwich that had not been listed amongst the ingredients.
The purpose of Natasha’s Law was ultimately to tighten the regulations around lists of ingredients further, increasing allergen sufferers’ confidence in pre-packed food. But is this enough to put consumers’ minds at ease?
Being aware of the consequences
Despite consumers’ and manufacturers’ dismay at the revelation of what could happen as a result of such a ‘simple’ mistake, a variety of major supermarkets and food businesses have continued to fail to properly label their products in recent years, and consumers don’t always get to hear about the consequences.
While the health risks for consumers are serious, there are significant repercussions for food manufacturers, too.
For instance, potential cross-contamination in a food facility can cause business owners to face substantial losses in revenue as a result of having to strip and reclean their facility or dispose of mislabelled products that have already been manufactured at a cost.
And once a food safety accident has been exposed to the public – as would inevitably be the case for product recalls – customers lose confidence in a brand, resulting in financial loss due to falls in sales.
So, what can food manufacturers do to minimise the risks?
Staff awareness and proper training in food factories can help ensure staff are fully aware of the risks and the procedures required to keep products safe.
And when multiple products are produced in the same factory – particularly products with and without allergens – it’s particularly important to ensure workers don’t carry contamination from one part of the facility to the other.
This is where factory design comes into play, as designing each area to avoid cross-contamination involving people, materials and air-borne substances is vital.
For instance, each factory should have dedicated changing rooms and washing areas, as well as dedicated sections to store raw ingredients. Factories should also include first-class ventilation systems to ensure potentially contaminated air doesn’t escape.
From handling and storing ingredients properly to appropriate packaging and cleaning processes, food safety should be built into the design of a food manufacturing facility from the onset.
Business owners should also seek to monitor their processes to identify further potential risks, as well as follow Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles, which can provide a great guide to efficiently manage operations.
Engineering a safer future
Food safety starts with businesses taking the necessary steps to ensure food safety is prioritised every step of the way.
More and more consumers are now conscious of what they eat, carefully inspecting labels and establishing higher standards for what they are comfortable with consuming.
And food manufacturers should cater to niches – and niches within niches – in the industry, including the vegetarianism, veganism, organic and dairy-free food trends, identifying increases in demand for a specific type of product as early as possible in order to be prepared to meet customers’ needs effectively.