The British Sandwich & Food to Go Association has issued the following response to the Food Standards Agency consultation on allergen labelling.
28th February 2020
First, we would like to make it absolutely clear that we fully support the need to provide consumers with accurate allergen information at point of purchase and our members are committed to doing this to the best of their ability.
The last thing our members want is to put their customers at risk.
Our overriding concern is that requiring foodservice businesses to put ingredient and allergen information on packs could lead to false assurances in environments where there are very high risks from cross contamination.
While foodservice businesses are currently required to make allergen information available to customers, there is a substantial difference between giving this verbally and providing the information on a printed label.
The manufacturing/retail sector is markedly different from that of foodservice. Most factories will have technical support and will be mass producing products in a very systemised and controlled way. Yet there is irrefutable evidence from the Food Standards Agency’s own product withdrawal notifications of products being mislabelled from this sector. Such occurrences happen virtually daily.
All but the larger foodservice establishments do not have technical teams available to them and they are generally dealing with a wide variety of ingredients, often in a restricted environment where the risks of cross contamination are extremely high.
While we accept that the new guidelines allow such businesses to assess the risks and highlight the dangers of cross contamination on labels/packs, there is strong evidence that consumers do not always read the information on packs carefully. Unless such disclaimers are equally as bold as the allergen information, there is a real danger that consumers may only read the information on the declared allergens and assume products are safe when they may not be.
Coupled with this there is the added risk of mislabelling in small businesses, which are often under pressure to serve numbers of customers in a short time period. In our industry the bulk of turnover is done at key times of the day and operators need to move customers through at a pace in order to realise the turnover they need to be viable.
In the sandwich and food-to-go market, many small businesses are marginal and will seriously struggle to accommodate the extra costs in time and money that will be needed to set up and maintain labelling.
We do not believe that the DEFRA Impact Assessment fully recognises the costs to business and, furthermore, it was conceived before the full impact of the new regulations were understood. The new guidelines move the requirements a distance from the original concept which was that these rules would only be applied to pre-packaged self-service products.
Under the new guidance there will be few foodservice/catering businesses that are not affected by these regulations as most have products that will fall within the scope of this legislation as it is now being interpreted by the Food Standards Agency.
Each business/site will need to invest in at least two label printers to cover the risk of breakdowns and some will need to purchase computers.
The key cost will, however, be in the staff needed to manage the process which, because of the high risks involved, will need to be undertaken by an experienced and senior member of the team who will generally be on a much higher hourly rate than the Minimum Wage.
According to Statistica, there are estimated to be over 88,000 foodservice businesses in the UK plus at least another 6,000 retail bakery outlets. Assuming a minimum of 75% of these sell products that will be affected by this legislation and that the setting up and managing of labelling involves a minimum of an hour a day – and probably longer – this equates to some 22 million man-hours a year.
This means a cost in excess of £2,500 per business unit based on the Minimum Wage, giving an annual cost of over £180 million to the industry which we believe would be a significant under-estimate. This is some 6 times the £31.6 million cost estimated by Defra!
In addition to this, businesses in this sector are already struggling to recruit staff and this is likely to get more difficult if constraints are placed on lower skilled workers coming to the UK, particularly from the EU.
Changing Nature of Sandwich Businesses
For many small sandwich businesses, we believe that both the risks and costs of complying with these new requirements will cause many to think twice about offering prepacked products. However, history suggests that many will struggle to maintain customer loyalty or achieve the sales volumes they need to meet their overheads without self-service options, particularly as research shows that in this market consumers are not willing to queue for any length of time.
The extension of these regulations to include packaged products sold on-line via delivery services, which the guidelines state “must” be labelled adds another dimension to this which was not anticipated or discussed originally.
This requirement will have a major impact on those sandwich businesses that operate bespoke sandwich/delivery businesses, most of which are small enterprises. This is best explained by a note from one of our members (attached below) which sets out the potentially serious impact this legislation will have on the viability of his own operation.
Our Association has no major objection to the guidelines proposed as they are a logical approach to dealing with the new requirements. We would, however, make the following observations:
- Given the huge risks involved in this sector from cross-contamination we believe that the guidelines put too much emphasis on discouraging the use of general allergen statements. The emphasis should be the other way around that if there is any risk of cross-contamination they should make this clear with a statement. Given that the whole purpose of this new legislation is to protect allergen suffers this is essential, as indicated in paragraph 14 on page 8 – “it is very important that food businesses provide consumers with clear and accurate information about allergenic ingredients in products to allow them to make safe food choices’.
- Given the objective of this legislation of giving better assurance to those with allergies, it does not make sense for charity and voluntary sales to be excluded from the new regulations.
- We would take issue with the statement that consumers are confused between prepackage retail products and those within the scope of PPDS. Most foodservice businesses have clear and very visible signage about allergens. The issue is more that when consumers are asked they do not understand the difference in terminology between prepacked and PPDS as the two terms are so closely aligned, which is exactly why we were keen for PPDS to be changed to something more descriptive such as self-service.
- The guidelines do not make it clear whether the QUID rules apply to the ‘list of ingredients’ in relation to PPDS. If they do, this will pose a massive challenge to small foodservice businesses who do not generally have the means or technical knowledge to provide accurate information in this way. We have already witnessed some advisors suggesting that these businesses will need to follow the full prepacked requirements. We would urge that this is absolutely clarified in the guidelines.