Recent years have seen significant changes to allergen law with the introduction of Natasha’s Law in 2021, requiring food packaged in the same place it is sold to consumers (known as pre-packed for direct sale or PPDS food) to label the 14 major allergens, if present in their products.
Food businesses have had to re-evaluate their allergen management processes to accommodate this new legislation, and further advancements may be on the horizon with ‘Owen’s Law’. In this article, we’ll discuss what Owen’s Law entails and what this may mean for businesses in the future.
What is the Owen’s Law campaign?
Owen’s Law is named after Owen Carey, who, at the age of 18, tragically lost his life following an allergic reaction while eating at a restaurant in April 2017. Owen explained his allergies to staff members and ordered a grilled chicken burger, as he was assured that it would be safe to eat.
However, the chicken had been marinated in buttermilk, to which Owen was allergic. Owen quickly had difficulty breathing and collapsed at the foot of the London Eye, close to St. Thomas’ Hospital after a fatal anaphylactic reaction.
Owen’s family established the ‘Owen’s Law’ campaign to drive changes in how restaurants display allergy information. As of writing (July 2023), restaurants are required to provide allergen information. However, there is leeway in conveying this information, with options to provide information on a chalkboard, an information pack, or an allergen binder. As a result, Owen’s family, among many others, believe the current allergen declaration processes are too lax, and simple changes to existing legislation could avoid needless deaths or near misses in the future.
Owen’s father, Paul Carey, told the BBC that “At the moment, restaurant owners are obliged to provide information about allergens, but the law allows them to do it ‘by any means’. We want that to be changed to ‘in writing’.”
What Changes Does Owen’s Law Propose?
Owen’s Law aims to convey potential allergens in restaurant dishes while ensuring that a customer’s allergies are always clear to both serving and kitchen staff. The first proposed change is that allergen information must be visible on the menu, either using the actual words, or with standardised symbols/numbers showing the presence of one of the 14 major allergens. An allergy matrix for each dish should also be available to break down present ingredients further.
Owen’s Law also outlines that restaurant staff should proactively discuss allergies with customers. Servers should be required to ask customers if they suffer from any allergies and read out the order alongside any dietary requirements before submitting it to the kitchen. Duty Managers should supervise this if allergens are present, as it would be considered a criminal offence if they fail to do so.
Furthermore, staff should be better trained, with at least the Duty Manager completing certified first-aid and allergy training to provide insight and guidance for junior staff members. The introduction of technology, such as a food database to provide allergen information, alongside an app to assist the database should make it easier for customers to access allergen information.
An allergen ID card is also proposed, containing a QR code to convey a customer’s allergies to staff better. The need for a national register that records anaphylaxis deaths was also mentioned, as well as further research into the causes of allergies and potential cures.
What Has the Government’s Response Been?
The government initially responded to the allergen labelling changes proposed in Owen’s Law in July 2021 following a petition on the Government website reaching over 10,000 signatures. While not committing to any changes at the time, the Government said that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was considering what evidence they could gather to evaluate the proposed changes to legislation.
The Department of Health and Social Care noted the importance of the anaphylaxis fatalities register, with the FSA agreeing that information regarding allergy-related fatalities needs to be easier to access.
In May of this year (2023), Owen’s Law was debated in parliament and largely echoed the FSA and Department of Health and Social Care sentiments. Most MPs supported the proposed changes to allergen labelling, highlighting the large percentage of young adults suffering from allergies that aren’t likely to inform a restaurant of their dietary requirements. They noted that current law offers a degree of flexibility in how allergen information is declared, and without a standard practice being enforced, an allergen declaration may be missed entirely.
MPs also supported creating an anaphylaxis death register and proposed that ‘near misses’ should also be recorded as is common in other industries. As many members of the public suffer from allergic reactions, access to more data on the subject may help further research into the cause and prevention of allergies, identifying patterns and trends that could be rectified.
While there was some concern that smaller businesses may struggle to keep menu changes up to date, it was agreed that consumer safety has to be prioritised through increased labelling legislation and empowering the public to discuss their allergens with restaurant staff.
For businesses of all sizes, it was proposed that personalised guidance is made available to assist their allergy awareness in risk assessment, particularly for smaller companies that may have less extensive measures to reduce allergy risks. The FSA was also urged to prioritise a review of Owen’s Law to avoid further unnecessary deaths.
What Are the Next Steps for Owen’s Law?
When new laws or major changes to current legislation are introduced it will typically be debated and approved by each house of parliament before receiving royal assent, where the King formally agrees for the proposed bill to be enacted into law. However, in the case of Owen’s Law this requires just a simple change to existing regulations, and this can be done through delegated powers, and not require a full vote in the chamber.
As mentioned earlier, the FSA plan to review the proposals in Owen’s Law and will bring forth their own recommendations as to how current legislation will need to be changed; the problem is that currently the FSA is not giving Owen’s Law the priority it deserves. The main piece of legislation covering allergen labelling in the UK is The Food Information Regulations 2014.
Natasha’s Law, a piece of legislation similar to Owen’s Law, was enacted into law as an amendment of the 2014 regulations known as The Food Information Amendment Regulations 2021, and Owen’s Law will likely be a further amendment to the original legislation.
Overall, the debate appeared to be a positive step forward in introducing the changes as part of official legislation and highlighted significant issues with the current labelling legislation..
The team at LiberEat supports the Owen’s Law campaign as a close alignment to our mission to make food safer for everyone and we hope to see positive changes to allergen legislation.
UPDATE: Following a Board Meeting on the 13th of December, the FSA announced that it would back the Owen’s Law Campaign proposal of making allergy information mandatory on restaurant menus. This is a significant step towards Owen’s Law being incorporated into existing legislation or being made its own law, and we’ll keep you updated with its progress as news develops.
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