How a loophole in food labeling regulations may cause serius health risks

The last two years have made a huge difference to the millions of people in Britain with food allergies. Tomorrow is the second anniversary of “ Natasha’s law” comes into effect.

The law requires all food retailers in the UK to provide full ingredient and allergen labeling on every food product made on site and pre-packed for direct sale – such as sandwiches, cakes and salads.

We know it has had an impact. A recent one Food Standards Agency (FSA) survey. This led to significant compliance from food companies, increased awareness among both consumers and businesses, and a growing trend of store employees asking customers whether or not they had allergies. In particular, it showed that food-allergic consumers felt safer.

But for us, the law came with the highest price: the life of our 15-year-old daughter Natasha was taken from us in 2016. She developed anaphylaxis after eating sesame, which was not listed as an ingredient in a store-bought baguette. She collapsed during a holiday flight to France and was pronounced dead later that day.

No parent should have to mourn the loss of their child, and knowing that Natasha’s death was completely preventable remains a source of the deepest pain for my husband, Nadim, and me.

Tanya Ednan-Laperouse with Natasha. Photo: Ian McIlgorm

The investigation into her death in 2018 proved what we had already discovered: that there was a loophole in food labeling regulations. The coroner said Natasha had felt “reassured” that the baguette was safe to eat because there was no mention of sesame on the label.

Natasha would be extremely proud of this law in her name as it has changed everyday lives – especially that of younger people who are more likely to buy ‘food on the go’. Official figures say more than 2 million people living with a diagnosed food allergy.

Food allergy is not a lifestyle choice or preference for them: it is a serious and unpredictable disease that can cause the potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that led to Natasha’s death. In recent years there has been an explosion of food allergy cases, especially among children. This has led to a tripling the number of hospital admissions due to food allergies over a period of 20 years.

Supporters of our charity, the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, tell us that Natasha’s Law protects people from potentially fatal allergic reactions. They can grab a sandwich at lunch and feel confident that what they’re eating won’t hurt them. Some now eat a wider variety of meals because transparent labeling allows them to know exactly what their allergens contain and do not contain.

It has improved the quality of life for families and removed some of the stress and anxiety inherent in having a child with a food allergy. A parent recently told me, “Food labeling is everything. It has made our lives so much better. We can look at the ingredients and we trust them more, thanks to Natasha’s Law.” Another mother simply said: “Without Natasha’s Law I don’t think my two-year-old son would have made it this far.”

To date, companies that do not comply with Natasha’s Law have received support, improvement notices, warnings and written warnings from trading standards officers. But two years later, it’s time to raise the bar. Now we are calling for repeat offenders to be fined.

Sandwiches for sale in Tesco
“Thanks to ‘Natasha’s Law’, people with allergies can grab a lunchtime sandwich and be confident that what they’re eating won’t harm them.” Photo: Islandstock/Alamy

There has also been a worrying trend noted by the FSA, with a 59% increase in the use of precautionary allergy labeling (Pal) by food companies affected by Natasha’s Law. These labels indicate that one or more regulated allergens may be unintentionally present in a product and pose a risk. The misuse and overuse of these labels unnecessarily limits people’s food choices – and conversely devalues ??the warning, which can lead to consumer risk-taking. It forces people with food allergies to either limit the foods they eat or cross their fingers and hope for the best. One mother told me: “It feels a bit like saying ‘risk it if you want, but we as manufacturers don’t promise anything’.”

We call for legislation and mandatory guidelines so that Pal is only applied where a risk of cross-contamination with an allergen has been identified.

There is also much more that the government can do. We need a mandatory national register of cases of fatal and near-fatal anaphylaxis so that policymakers, scientists and healthcare professionals understand the true scale of the problem. The government should urgently appoint an allergy czar, who can act as a national leader and ensure people receive appropriate healthcare support. Many don’t.

Allergic diseases are at epidemic levels in Britain. All around one in three people now suffers from allergies, with conditions ranging from food and drug allergies to asthma and eczema – and the numbers are rising.

So yes, tomorrow we celebrate the second anniversary of Natasha’s Law, but there is still so much more to do to ensure that people with food allergies and their families can live safer and more fulfilling lives.