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Mail on Sunday fails to serve readers full facts on EU food allergen rules that could save lives

November 11th, 2014

New rules being introduced across the EU from 13 December 2014 (by the Food Information for Consumers Regulation 1169/2011) will give allergy sufferers eating out the same information and protection as when they shop in the supermarket. The aim is to prevent avoidable distress and in extreme cases save lives.

Millions of British allergy-sufferers – and their relatives and friends – will be able to be even more confident that it is safe for them to eat out. That is also in the commercial interest of establishments serving food.

Yet according to the Mail on Sunday, these rules on food allergens will cost British restaurants millions of pounds which in turn will be passed on to – “UK diners” who will “face £200m for EU allergy rules”. The claim follows a September article in The Sun which put the cost even higher at £375m for introducing the same EU Regulation.

All of this is at best a gross exaggeration, as a common sense analysis is sufficient to demonstrate.

The UK government supported the new rules.

As British Influence discovered after the Sun report, impact assessments by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) calculated a figure of £9.7m in costs. Which when you divide it by the number of establishments serving food in the UK (ONS figures show 139,445 just in Great Britain) would give an approximate figure of less than £70 per restaurant or cafe.

That is a fraction of the costs cited in the press, which seem to have been partly based on two misconceptions.

First, the misconception that the new rules would mean all restaurants would have to include in all printed menus voluminous information – that is not the case. The rules require only that they need to declare the inclusion of any one of the 14 allergens to customers in a variety of possible ways, such as on menus and chalkboards, clear signposting to where the information can be obtained and through oral communication.

The second misconception seems to have been that it would somehow require five minutes of waiting staff’s time to deal with every enquiry about allergens. Difficult to see how a brief explanation to a customer or a reference to information provided in a short document or on a board could on average take so long.

And the limited real costs would according to Defra be incurred only in the first year of the new rules, as businesses adapted to them. What is more, many restaurants operating best practice already do voluntarily what the new rules will make compulsory.

The truncated and slanted Mail on Sunday article was all the more disappointing given the freelance reporter concerned had conducted serious research, including with us, on this serious topic that affects millions of lives.

The recent widely-reported – including by the MoS itself – case of the small child whose condition became life threatening due to peanuts on a plane, is just one example of the dangers of food allergies.

Whilst deaths from anaphylaxis-related food reactions are now very rare, at least ten people die every year in the UK from an allergic reaction to food. And many more end up in hospital. In most cases, Trading Standards state the food that caused the reaction is from a restaurant or takeaway.

There are also about 1,500 asthma deaths, some of which might be triggered by food allergy, according to the UK Food Standards Agency. For those at greatest risk, the tiniest trace of food allergen can trigger severe symptoms and, in some cases, cause fatal or near-fatal symptoms.

Medical research shows around 74% of allergen related food incidents can be linked to foods sold loose in shops and in restaurants.

Prior to the new EU rules being drawn up, a number of surveys and consultations were carried out by the Commission during which the lack of information relating to the allergens’ presence on non-prepacked foods was identified by consumers as one of the main weakness of the EU labelling rules.

The list of 14 allergens or substances causing intolerances (cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, milk, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seeds, sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre, lupin and molluscs – full details in Annex II of Regulation 1169/2011) was established on the basis of scientific opinions adopted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The Food Standards Agency, in conjunction with Defra, is responsible for providing guidance to UK food business operators.

The MoS also seems to assume – based on no evidence – that the rest of Europe will ignore new rules. In fact, Commission statistics show that the UK, while it has a reasonably good record, does not lead the pack in so far as preventing infringements of EU rules is concerned. (Croatia, Malta, Czech Republic, Sweden and Greece recorded 7 or fewer infringements cases for late transposition open at the end of 2013, the UK had 18: COM(2014) 612)

For its part, the Commission will monitor all Member States to ensure they fully implement the EU law they have agreed and signed-up to do. In addition, audits will be carried out by the Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) with national authorities to verify how compliance with EU food chain standards is ensured.

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Please note that all statements in all entries were correct on the date of publication given. However, older archived posts are not systematically updated in the light of later developments, for example changes to EU law.

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