Labelling laws to become tighter and more consistent

09 January 2019

The law is not always the best arbiter of what is right and wrong as the tragic case of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after eating a Pret a Manger baguette, tragically demonstrated.

Natasha died in 2016 and the recent inquest into her death generated widespread media attention. The inquest highlighted gaps in current labelling laws that proved fatal on this occasion and Natasha’s family have urged for changes to prevent future tragedies.

Pret a Manger said it will implement such changes, while other major food and drinks retailers have announced they are examining how best to provide ingredient and allergy information to customers.

Whatever businesses decide to do individually, there seems little doubt that more stringent labelling laws will come into force. They are needed to improve consistency and to protect the growing number of people with allergies.

As the law stands, companies preparing, packaging and selling fresh food onsite do not have to label it for allergens. In Natasha’s case, the result was that she bought an artichoke, olive and tapenade baguette, not knowing that it contained sesame to which she was allergic.

There was no obligation for Pret a Manger to put allergen information on the product and so it did not break the law. The mislabelling trigger in a contaminated product insurance policy would not have responded on the basis that this omission did not represent accidental or unintended mislabelling.

If and when the law is changed, failing to label a product for an allergen such as sesame will contravene a company’s legal obligations and could have significant liability repercussions. In this situation a contaminated product insurance policy could provide valuable financial and crisis management assistance.

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Tighter regulations, therefore, will bring benefits to consumers and companies alike. First and most important is that consistent point-of-sale information across packaged, non-packaged and fresh food outlets will enable customers to see exactly what a product contains and make it easier to identify and avoid allergens. It will help to save lives.

Second, is the fact that consistent labelling laws will do away with the existing loophole, again protecting consumers, but also creating a more reliable response from insurance policies. This more consistent response will encourage better take-up of a cover that can provide a valuable safety net for companies.

Natasha’s case is an unwanted reminder that allergens are a life and death matter in the food and drinks sector. But there are also many mislabelling, contamination, or product recall incidents that do not carry such severe health consequences, although they have significant operational, financial and reputational implications for companies.

A lot of businesses underestimate the commercial impact of such events. Often, they do not realise the cost and scale of the logistics involved, or the immediate need for technical specialists to assess, manage and mitigate what can quickly escalate into a full-blown crisis.

Where events spiral out of control, adverse publicity can bring a brand to its knees in hours, let alone days. The resulting disruption to production and/or sales can then see business interruption losses begin to mount up.

For any business in the food and drinks sector, customer safety is the overriding priority. Regulators have the same focus and so there can be no doubt about the direction of regulatory travel.

As the law tightens and operations come under greater scrutiny, companies must fully understand their growing exposures if they are to mitigate them successfully. A detailed risk assessment will identify and quantify risks, and from this more informed position it is possible to better manage, reduce and potentially transfer outstanding risks to insurers.

The result will be safer customers and more robust companies, creating benefits for the sector as a whole.  

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For further information, please contact Joyce Leo, Senior Executive of Food & Agribusiness at Joyce_Leo@jltasia.com .