UK Environmental Secretary Michael Gove announced last month a new law requiring food businesses to include full ingredients labelling on pre-packaged foods to protect the two million food allergy sufferers. But implementing it could present a number of challenges for small businesses.

‘Natasha’s Law’ is named after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after suffering an allergic reaction to a Pret A Manger sandwich. It will make it compulsory for all food businesses that make fresh food on site to clearly label products that are on sale to customers with their entire ingredients list.

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) classes pre-packaged food as being made and packed on the same premises as where they are sold, for example, a packaged sandwich or salad made by staff earlier in the day and then sold to customers. At the moment it is not compulsory for these foods to have allergen information on them; employees are only required to tell customers the potential food allergens in the product if asked.

The UK’s hospitality sector has acknowledged the sensitivity surrounding ‘Natasha’s Law’ but did warn that new food labelling practices could be ‘impractical and potentially hazardous.’

Trade association UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said: “We are worried that full ingredient labelling is going to prevent the kind of dialogue we need to promote. Some smaller businesses may struggle with the unwieldy new legislation and it is almost certainly going to lead to much less choice for customers. There is also a risk that the new measures, which will not circumvent cross-contamination and will be open to mislabelling, will only promote a dangerous reliance on labelling.”

‘Natasha’s Law’ challenges for small businesses

The new legislation will mean food businesses of any size will need to have some sort of labelling system, with national sandwich chains choosing to use electronic labelling systems. However this type of labelling might be too expensive for small businesses, so they will have to use handwritten labels.

The challenges the new legislation would present include expense, the amount of time to label every food item, and training employees how to label foods or recruiting experienced employees. In regards to small food businesses the relative costs of dealing with these factors could be greater.

Support from Environmental Health Officers will be crucial in making sure businesses will meet the requirements of the new law when they are known.

What are food businesses saying

A spokesperson for Pret A Manger said: “We are pleased that the Government has chosen to support full ingredient labelling. As part of Pret’s Allergy Plan, full ingredient labels are now in over 100 Pret shops as part of our nationwide rollout. Before we took this step, we ran a number of pilots to confirm that this approach would be safe, practical and effective. Thanks to the dedication of many Pret team members, we have been able to show that full ingredient labelling is operationally possible in small kitchens when proper care is taken.”

Food safety standards for food suppliers and distributors consultancy manager for the north at food safety consultancy STS Annabel Kyle said: “Food businesses of all sizes will need to develop a system of labelling that allows them to list full ingredients in a way that is both legally compliant and simple to carry out. They may want to trial their system to ensure it is effective and that they are able to maintain it easily and with accuracy.

“Staff in food businesses selling foods in this way will need to be suitably trained in the system, and in allergic contamination controls, so they have the knowledge and understanding to ensure allergenic ingredients are correctly recorded and that allergens are not accidentally introduced during preparation.”

AI food discovery company Spoon Guru CEO and co-founder Markus Stripf said: “It’s great news that the government is set to implement Natasha’s Law to tighten regulations in a bid to prevent any further potentially avoidable deaths. Currently, there are no requirements by law for pre-packaged food made in store to be labelled with allergens or ingredients, so the new law will benefit and safeguard anyone with a food allergy, and not just the 14 allergens recognised in the UK.

“It’s really unfortunate that it took a tragedy for the government to act but what is clear is that businesses are now taking food allergies more seriously, and conscious that using loopholes in the law is not considered appropriate behaviour. As a result, many restaurants in the UK now ask customers before they sit down about allergens, and some provide books with all dishes and every ingredient for customers to read and decide what they can and can’t eat.”