Shropshire Star

Concerns for those with serious food allergies as number of food recalls is revealed

More than half of food recalls in the UK over a five-year period were due to allergens, a new study has revealed, raising concern for people with serious food allergies.

More than half of food recalls in the UK between 2016 and 2021 were due to allergens, a new study has found.

Of 1,036 recalls between 2016 to 2021, 597 (57.6 per cent) were allergen-related, while 19 per cent were due to "microbiological reasons" such as the presence of Salmonella.

The third most prevalent cause was physical contaminants such as plastic and metal debris in food, amounting to 16.7 per cent of food recalls between 2016 and 2021.

And a quarter of the recalls caused by allergens were due to products containing milk, while 16.9 per cent were due to cereals and 10.6 per cent contained nuts.

For people who put their faith in manufacturers to clearly and accurately display allergens to protect their health and wellbeing, this has become an unwelcome discovery.

UK allergen recalls by type of food, 2016-2021.

Ian Farnell, a university lecturer from West Bromwich, is "concerned but not surprised" by the statistics.

The 34-year-old said: "I don't think that companies take allergens seriously enough, or if they do, it's from a commercial perspective and not from the standpoint of saving lives or trying to increase the range of foods that allergy-suffers can eat."

Ian has severe allergies to nuts, peanuts, and sesame seeds, all of which are among the 14 major food allergens, and consuming traces of these ingredients could lead him to have a potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

Allergens have been a major point of discussion since the death of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016, who died after she ate sesame in a baguette from Pret a Manger, despite sesame not being listed on the packaging.

Her death led to the introduction of Natasha's Law in October 2021, requiring food businesses to include a full list of ingredients on pre-packaged foods.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died after she fell ill on a flight from London to Nice after eating a sandwich at Heathrow Airport. Photo: Family Handout/PA Wire.

However, Ian still has concerns about allergy safety, and said: "Despite changes since Natasha's Law, it still feels like allergy sufferers are not protected enough. The logical assumption is that you're not viewed as an important customer demographic.

"You put your life in the hands of food manufacturers. Recalls are especially worrying. Presumably the only way you find out something has gone wrong with a product is that someone has had anaphylaxis as a result.

"Every time the Anaphylaxis Campaign says a product has been recalled, you wonder whether a person has died. How many people have died behind the statistics of allergy recalls?"

While the Food Standards Agency does not reveal how the issues leading to recalls came to light, their breakdown concerning the recalls between 2016 and 2021 sheds an interesting light on how allergens have been handled in the food manufacturing industry.

40 per cent of allergen-related food recalls made were due to the omission of priority allergens, which had been intentionally added to the food, from the list of ingredients on the food packaging.

This is an alarming statistic considering this concerns allergens which were intentionally added and should have easily made it to the list of ingredients.

The second most prevalent cause was cross contamination, attributed to 18.9 per cent of allergen-related recalls, followed by products being placed in incorrect packaging, which led to 17.1 per cent of cases.

Other reasons including priority allergens not being distinguished from other ingredients on packaging (10.2 per cent), products not being labelled in an easily understood language by consumers in the country where the food was marketed (7.1 per cent), and falsely claiming that a food is free-from an allergy (6.7 per cent).

Reasons for the recall of food products due to allergens.

The percentage attributed to each reason shows the danger of the various hazards in the food manufacturing industry, and taking a look at the suppliers with the most recalls illustrates where work has been done well, or poorly, to protect allergy sufferers.

316 unique manufacturers issued food recalls between 2016 and 2021 for a total of 1213 unique products, and the supplier with the most recalls was German discount supermarket, Lidl.

Lidl issued 37 recalls with the Food Standards Agency in this time period, with more than two thirds of these caused by allergen information not being labelled in English.

The German supermarket operates in several countries and this statistic highlights the diligence needed when operating across an array of different language-speaking countries.

However, this labelling error was not observed for Lidl after 2020, showing that they learned from their mistakes. Coinciding with the start of the pandemic, it could also be aided by the restrictions imposed during this time period and the streamlining of manufacturing.

The other suppliers with the most recalls were Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Co-Op, and Morrisons. While this is likely due to the size of their operations and almost monopoly on the food market, it raises an issue for consumers.

Retail is based on trust and brands work very hard to maintain a good relationship with their customers. Big brand names including the likes of the aforementioned supermarkets suggest a degree of credibility with producing their food, which includes food labelling.

If the major retailers are having significant problems with labelling allergies, then this causes more anxiety and distrust for allergy sufferers, fostering paranoia as they are left unable to know which suppliers to trust.

Allergen labelling should be the highest priority for manufacturers. Thankfully, the data provided by the Food Standards Agency shows a significant drop in recalls of 15 per cent in 2020, followed by a slight increase the following year.

As tragedies such as the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse hit the headlines, we can only hope that manufacturers are stepping up to help protect the lives of the people buying their products.