Consumers want to know that the food that they’re eating is safe - but for allergy sufferers, the question becomes even more pressing. Following the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse from an allergic reaction after eating a Pret a Manger baguette, the UK government passed “Natasha’s Law.

While the law came into effect in October 2021 and was hailed as an important advance in food safety legislation, some critics believe that it didn’t go far enough. Just over two years on, we revisit Natasha’s Law and provide our update on food industry labelling legislation, with a focus on allergen disclosure.

So what is Natasha's Law? and are there equivalent laws elsewhere?

It has long been understood that prepacked food that has been made by one business and supplied to another must be labelled. The packaging must indicate the presence of potential allergens and exactly what those allergens are. However, the original laws did not cover food that was prepacked for direct sale (PPDS). This category of food is packaged on the site from which it is sold and is offered for sale having already been packaged. Natasha’s Law rectifies this by specifying that PPDS food labels must alert consumers to the presence of any allergens.

Natasha’s Law applies to the UK, where the Food Standards Agency (FSA) recognises 14 allergens. This differs from the US, where only 9 allergens are recognised, while in Australia, 23 potential allergens are recognised. This lack of a united viewpoint in the labelling of food allergens leaves room for error, particularly as items ­– and people – travel from region to region.

International allergen disclosure in PPDS foods

Although allergen disclosure laws differ slightly in the US compared to the UK, the Food Allergen Labelling and Protection Act (FALCAPA) is similar to Natasha’s Law. It requires allergen disclosure on PPDS food labels but not on foods that are packaged after ordering. This law predates Natasha’s Law: it was passed in 2004. 

In Australia, allergen declarations must either be on all labels or displayed in conjunction with the food offered. While this might sound sufficiently stringent, allergy information that’s “available on request” still applies to food that is ordered before packaging. These food safety laws were passed in 2021, the same year that the UK passed Natasha’s Law.

Are there any exemptions to Natasha’s Law?

The industry has embraced change and tightened safety measures, going on to identify, capture and display allergens in ways that doesn’t just adhere to the law, but are considered genuinely comprehensive and identifiable to customers. There has also been a drive to ensure stronger communication and collaboration along the supply chain to ensure full and failproof compliance.

Natasha’s Law does not apply to food that is packaged after being ordered, a distinction that raised justifiable concerns at the time it was implemented. Unfortunately, these fears were confirmed following the death of 18 year-old Owen Carey. Owen died after he ate a piece of chicken that had been marinated in buttermilk, something to which he was fatally allergic.

Food Safety Challenges & Opportunities in 2023

In response to this, the UK Parliament discussed the introduction of Owen's Law on May 15, 2023. The proposal was backed by over 12,000 signatures, and if it is actioned, the new law will see information about food allergens being required on all restaurant menus. 

Why is Natasha's Law so important?

The most obvious reason why Natasha’s Law is important is that it could save lives. But there are additional nuances. The law allows consumers to have confidence in the foods they buy and to have greater trust in the businesses they buy them from. It also allows businesses to sell their food without fear of harming people despite their attention to quality and hygiene.

Natasha’s Law also brings allergen awareness to the fore. Even trace amounts of food allergens can be fatal, and this poses additional challenges for the food industry. If ingredients are sourced from a facility that processes allergenic foods, the “may contain” precautionary disclosure could be vitally important.

In this instance, the allergen is not an ingredient per se, but cross-contamination can’t be ruled out - even when it occurs within the supply chain and not on a business’s own premises. For the food industry, the need to access accurate food provenance data has always been paramount, but the potential for allergen contamination adds an additional criterion that Natasha’s Law has brought to the fore. 

What has been the impact of Natasha's Law?

Natasha's Law has raised awareness regarding the potentially fatal consequences of failing to label PPDS foods so that allergen content is specified. But redesigning packaging and discarding existing stockpiles of non-compliant packaging can be a costly exercise. And, it seems that not all food businesses are meeting the new requirements, with consumer confidence reflecting this. 

A 2023 survey conduced by the Food Standards Agency revealed the following facts:

  • Only 42% of consumers felt that the availability of information on allergen content in PPDS foods had improved since the law was introduced.
  • 24% of food businesses selling PPDS products said that they were aware that they weren’t fully compliant with the law.
  • 72% of businesses said that they had included precautionary allergen labelling when cross-contamination might be a risk.
  • 17% said they were avoiding the need for compliance by offering foods they previously prepackaged in an unpackaged format before ordering.
  • 51% of affected food businesses said that compliance with food labelling requirements had increased their costs.

What has the impact of Natasha's Law been on food labelling?

As we can see from the survey results summarised above, there hasn’t been a uniform response to Natasha’s Law. Some seek to circumvent it by moving their products outside of the PPDS category - an approach that remains legal as long as staff are properly trained to provide accurate information if questioned. 

A significant percentage of businesses are still willing to take their chances with non-compliance. However, it appears that most food businesses understand the need for Natasha’s Law and are complying with its labelling requirements - despite having to absorb the costs of packaging redesign. Nevertheless, there is still work that can be done to safeguard businesses and consumers alike.

The next steps in the process

For those who aren’t yet compliant, or who have changed the way they present products for sale so that they aren’t subject to Natasha’s Law, there's some catching up to be done. It seems very likely that Owen’s Law will be the next piece of legislation to protect allergy sufferers. Those who have complied with Natasha’s Law, even exceeding its requirements, will have a head start if (or when) exemptions for certain categories of food are lifted. 

Meanwhile, diligent supply chain partners have remained up to date with food labelling laws and are already assisting with compliance by offering full disclosures of potential allergens. Data-driven insights can help you to identify and support these suppliers while protecting your business’s reputation - and your customers' safety.

So will this become law any time soon?

The original legislation did not cover food that is not offered for sale in a packaged format or is packed after you order. This has raised safety concerns among people with food allergies eating in bars, cafes or restaurants. If allergen information is not provided on request, consumers must assume that menus will indicate ingredients they should avoid. This was the case with Owen Carey. The information provided said the chicken would be "plain grilled" but it did not mention the marinade - which is what triggered the fatal reaction.

The proposed law would extend allergen labelling to previously exempt categories, and the reasoning behind it is straightforward. Menus would be required to indicate possible allergen content, allowing at-risk consumers to make informed choices. This approach is already recommended but leaves the “information on request” loophole open. In practical terms, it means that consumer safety depends on communication - and the availability of trained staff members who are able to provide accurate information.

The death of a restaurant customer in 2014 after he specifically asked staff whether the dish he wanted to order contained peanuts, and the subsequent prosecution of the business’s owner, underlines the need for tighter legislation in this context.

Beyond 2023: what will Natasha’s Law and its successors mean for businesses?

Natasha’s Law, and the criteria for complying with it, have been in force since 2021. Already, there are indications that not all businesses are compliant, and Natasha’s family are campaigning for stricter sanctions. At present, businesses that break the allergen disclosure law have been served with improvement notices, cautions, and warnings rather than fines or more severe penalties. 

The implication for businesses, even those that strive to comply with the law, will be recognition of the need for diligence - both in their food labelling practices and in their product sourcing decisions.

How Owen’s Law supplements Natasha’s Law

With Owen’s Law apparently poised to supplement existing allergen-related legislation, the need to not only meet but exceed the requirements set out in Natasha’s Law is pressing. Failing to do so will not only mean a risk of being fined. Criminal prosecution is a real possibility if there is further loss of life resulting from failure to disclose allergens.

The greatest impacts will be felt by restaurants, takeaway food businesses, cafes, delis, and bakeries. They’re already required to make allergen information available, even if only through notices requesting patrons to ask about allergens. But in future, it seems likely that menus and point-of-sale materials will be required to indicate allergen content clearly and unambiguously. 

Besides this, Owen’s Law, if passed, will require restaurants to provide better allergy and first-aid training for staff. It will also mandate the creation of a food database and smart phone app that customers can use to find out what meals they can eat. Finally, the law proposes the development of an ID asset with a QR code that helps servers identify customer allergies. As an extra precaution, servers will also be obliged to ask customers about their allergies instead of waiting for customers to raise their concerns.

Will this become law any time soon?

The outcome of calls for better allergen information for unpackaged food, or food that is made to order and then packaged, is still unclear.

Natasha Smith, deputy director of food policy at the Food Standards Agency, told The Evening Standard: “The FSA has commissioned further research into the provision of allergen information, some of which has been completed, and we must review the results before any decisions on next steps are made.”

With many stakeholders to consider, and new methods to be developed, she adds: “The body of evidence that has emerged from the FSA’s research so far is complex and does not indicate one ‘right approach’ that will work for all."

On the 15 May 2023, following discussions in parliament, the following statement was issued: “Any new legislation will need to be carefully considered, taking into account what consumers would find helpful, the requirements for businesses and local authorities, as well as the potential for unintended consequences.”

However, it is clear that parliament is awaiting the FSA’s findings and that any legislative decisions will be made based on its research. The parliamentary statement clarifies this measured approach and its reliance on the FSA’s input by adding: “The FSA is considering what other evidence it could gather and assess in relation to the Owen’s Law proposals as this is an essential part of the process for evaluating proposed legislative change.”

A proactive approach to food safety

In closing, we believe that food industry professionals will see the benefits of adopting a proactive approach to allergen-related food safety - even before laws are passed. While this might seem like a huge challenge considering the risks of allergens in the food supply chain, Foods Connected can simplify the process.

Our end-to-end supply chain software provides solutions for food safety, compliance, procurement and CSR, making it a crucially important tool for today’s food industry businesses. To find out more, request a demo of the Foods Connected platform today.