The Biggest Announcements From the Food Standards Agency in 2023

As seen in recent years with the introduction of Natasha’s Law and discussions surrounding the Owen’s Law Campaign, allergen management is a constantly evolving aspect of food safety. In light of this, 2023 has seen many announcements from the Food Standards Agency with significant implications for food businesses in the future.  

In early September 2023, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published an updated version of their ‘Food allergen labelling and information requirements technical guidance’, detailing best practices for allergen labelling.

It’s important to note that the recommendations are not legally enforceable, but help further communicate accurate and helpful allergen information to consumers. As a result, every business should bear these changes in mind to help protect their consumers from injury – after all, this is the key goal of most food safety professionals. They exist to protect businesses from making errors that can cause injury to consumers.

Other announcements include the launch of the FSA Food Fraud Hotline to assist in reporting instances of food crime occurring in the workplace, which refers to the deliberate alteration, misrepresentation, or tampering of food products for economic gain. At the end of the year, we also received a significant update to the Owen’s Law Campaign with the FSA, announcing their support. 

Today, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at these announcements while considering what potential legislative changes may be made in 2024. 

When Should Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL) Be Used?

Image of supermarket shelf featuring coffee products

Much of the FSA’s updated technical guidance relates to changes to how businesses should utilise precautionary allergen labelling (PAL). To provide some context, PAL is a voluntary process where businesses may provide labels declaring that allergens may be unintentionally present in the product, typically seen with the words ‘may contain’. For example, allergens may appear in foods due to cross-contamination if multiple products are produced and prepared in the same premises. 

While it may seem wise to use PAL at every opportunity for the safety of consumers, the FSA warns against excessive use of this type of labelling as it may result in consumers not taking allergy warnings as seriously and taking more risks when choosing products to purchase. 

Bearing this in mind, FSA has updated their guidelines regarding how and when PAL should be used, saying the following:

  • PAL should be used if there is a risk of allergen cross-contamination that cannot be contained through typical prevention methods such as cleaning and proper storage methods.
  • Rather than using the generic ‘may contain’ statement for allergens, PAL should specify the 14 major allergens that may be present – stating ‘may contain eggs’, for example. 

The guidance also aims to make clear how ‘vegan’, PAL, and ‘free from’ claims can be used:

The FSA claims that any vegan labels aren’t food safety related, and PAL can be used alongside these labels when there is any risk of allergen cross-contamination. For instance, consumers often purchase vegan products if they have an egg or milk allergy. The ‘free from’ label should only be used if businesses can guarantee no cross-contamination has occurred, and therefore can not and should not be used alongside PAL.

Alongside the updated guidance and with the support of the FSA, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) released the FDF Guidance on Change Management of Allergen Information to help assist businesses with their allergen labelling and management processes, detailing best practices for the intentional or unintentional presence of allergen(s) in a product and the importance of sharing this information across the whole supply chain. For context, the Food and Drink Federation is a membership organisation representing and advising UK food and drink manufacturers.

Kate Halliwell, Chief Scientific Officer at the FDF had the following to say about the updated version of the technical guidance: 

The FSA’s technical allergen guidance is a key document for business, which helps ensure appropriate labelling is provided to best support consumers. Of particular note, this latest version provides important clarity to food businesses, especially small and medium-sized ones, on the appropriate use of precautionary allergen labelling statements.

Bringing consistency to how ‘may contain’ statements are used will help businesses and, importantly, ensure allergenic consumers are not unnecessarily restricted in the food choices they have.”

Food Safety professionals can view the ‘Food allergen labelling and information requirements technical guidance’ document here – it serves as a helpful refresher on allergen management, discussing general information surrounding allergens as advice such as how both PPDS and non-PPDS foods should be labelled.

Launch of the Food Fraud Hotline

Food fraud is a concern for many businesses and is a complex problem to solve as it can occur at many different points of the supply chain. When staff spot an error, or have a suspicion that food fraud has occurred, they should report this to their line managers, business leaders, and the FSA. 

The FSA aims to make it easier for whistleblowers to report their concerns with the launch of an official Food Crime Hotline, allowing people to anonymously report to  0800 028 1180 for any food fraud concerns such as theft, adulteration, and document fraud, to name a few of the potential crimes. For a deep dive into the different types of food fraud, take a look at our article on the subject. 

Emily Miles, CEO of the FSA had the following to say regarding the hotline’s launch: 

Food businesses are the first and most important line of defence, and we want to support them. This is one of the reasons why we launched a working group to explore whether some areas of our collective response to food crime can be improved. Together, we’re making it easier to share intelligence and information by helping people who work in the food system to share their concerns with us freely and confidentially.”

Food Standards Agency Backing Proposed Changes from the Owen’s Law Campaign

The end of 2023 came with one of the most significant FSA announcements of the year, as the department revealed that it backs the Owen’s Law campaign proposal of allergen information in writing becoming mandatory in restaurants

The Owen’s Law campaign was formed after Owen Carey tragically passed away following a severe allergic reaction after eating at a restaurant in April 2017. Owen explained his allergies to staff members and ordered a grilled chicken burger that turned out to be marinated in buttermilk, one of his allergies. He quickly had difficulty breathing and sadly passed away following a fatal anaphylactic attack near St. Thomas’ Hospital.

Following this tragedy, Owen’s family has been campaigning for changes in how allergen information is communicated in restaurants, requiring restaurants to provide allergen information and proposing changes in training to ensure all staff are acutely aware of their customers’ allergies. A detailed explanation of the Owen’s Law campaign and proposed changes can be found in our article covering the subject. 

Owen’s Law was initially discussed in parliament on the 15th of May 2023 following a petition on the government website reaching over 10,000 signatures. The FSA expressed interest in changes to the current allergen labelling guidance. Following an FSA board meeting discussing the campaign on the 13th of December, it was decided that the FSA would back the Owen’s Law campaign proposal to make written allergy information mandatory in restaurants. 

Following the announcement, Paul Carey (Owen’s father) said in the Owen’s Law Campaign December Newsletter:

This is fantastic news for our campaign, and we hope that the Government will accept the FSA’s recommendation in full.  When we met Mark Spencer MP, the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, he gave us the clear impression he would act on the FSA’s recommendations if they issued any.  We will be making contact with his department in the New Year and seeking confirmation that he will do that. We will ask our supporters across the country to write (again) to their local MP, asking them to urge Mr Spencer to adopt the FSA’s recommendations. 

Since starting our campaign in April 2021, we have discussed our calls to change the law with a number of organisations, notably the FSA. Naturally, as a regulatory body, the FSA need to consider all pertinent issues and engage with other stakeholders in the catering industry. We accept that such things cannot be rushed and, despite some delays along the way, we are now very grateful to the FSA for their support. The Board members, led by Margaret Gilmore, were at one in their opinion that the need to provide allergen information in the restaurant and take-away food sector must be made mandatory, and we thank them for doing so.

We look forward to continuing our campaign to change the law in 2024; with a tailwind there is no reason, in our view, why Owen’s Law could not become a real law next year. We look forward to updating you with further progress in 2024.”

While mandatory written allergy information in restaurants was the main proposal brought forward by the campaign, other recommendations include better staff training, a national register for anaphylaxis deaths, and staff being more proactive when asking customers about their allergies. The FSA has taken notice of the other proposals, with the FSA board stating  There should be an expectation for a verbal conversation to take place between customers and food business staff, to ensure an added layer of protection for consumers.” 

What Does This Mean for the Owen’s Law Campaign?

One of the main roles of the Food Standards Agency is to make recommendations to ministers on ways to improve current food safety legislation. While the government isn’t legally obligated to implement them, the expectation is that recommendations are likely to be implemented. .

Overall, the backing of the FSA is a huge boost for the Owen’s Law Campaign, with FSA chairwoman Susan Jebb stating that she will be writing to the relevant ministers in all regions of the UK regarding the Owen’s Law proposals. With more pressure on ministers to push for improved allergen information in restaurants, it’s increasingly likely that 2024 will see changes to current legislation as the campaign proposals are considered in the coming months. 

We hope this has helped explain the FSA’s updates. We’ll be sure to cover any new changes to allergen management as they appear, so be sure to follow us on LinkedIn to be informed of our latest articles.

LiberEat Allergen Detection Software

LiberEat has a unique allergen detection technology that helps prevent errors in allergen data on food packaging and menus. This can help to protect your customers from the 14 major allergens- find out more about these with our allergen information hub.

Correctly managing and reviewing your allergen data is important for keeping you and your customers safe. Errors in allergen data can cause potentially devastating allergic reactions and expensive product recalls. Give yourself peace of mind and get in contact with us to find out more about how LiberEat can help protect your business.

To find out how LiberEat Technology supports food businesses to detect allergens and errors, to protect consumers