An estimated seven per cent of children in the UK have a food allergy.  In the best case scenario, consuming a food containing an allergen could mean an unpleasant reaction such as a rash or vomiting.  But in the worst case scenario, an allergic reaction will kill.

Now, new research from Unchecked UK, published in The Times, has found that nearly one in five food samples taken by Local Authorities in England, Scotland and Wales contained potentially fatal hidden allergens.    The study also found that over the past three years the number of food samples tested for allergens has fallen by over a quarter – with 20 Local Authorities taking no allergen samples at all.

Meanwhile, NHS statistics show that hospital admissions in England for anaphylactic shock caused by adverse food reactions rose by nearly 70 per cent in the last decade, and that admissions of children under 14 years old has more than doubled over this period. The Food Standards Agency itself has said that around ten people die from allergic reactions to food every year due to undeclared allergenic ingredients.

Clearly, all is not well with the UK’s food law enforcement system.

Food businesses are required by law to tell customers if their food contains any one of 14 major allergens, either by highlighting them in ingredients lists, or providing full allergen information on menus, notices, or labels.

But reported allergy incidents resulting from wrongly labelled packaging have increased steadily in recent years, raising concerns about whether Local Authorities – who oversee local food businesses – have the resources they need for the job. There are now just three local food law enforcement staff in post per 1000 UK food establishments, with numbers falling by a third since 2009. Total food sampling has plummeted by nearly 60 per cent since 2009.

Welcome efforts have been made recently by the Government to address shortcomings in the food regulatory system. ‘Natasha’s Law’ – the new allergen labelling requirements for businesses in England selling food prepacked for direct sale – has been brought forward following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016 and is due to come into force in October 2021. But if the new law is policed as weakly as the existing requirements, will anything really change?

The stark findings of our study illustrate that regulation is only as good as the enforcement that underpins it. In the case of UK food law, the gaps are looming large.

And while these findings provide cause for alarm in their own right, they are part of a wider cumulative trend away from regulation and enforcement, evidenced by a staggering decline in almost every metric of enforcement activity across the spectrum of public protection. Unchecked UK research finds that, from 2009-17, real terms funding for the environmental and social protection work of ten key national regulators fell on average by 50%. The total number of full-time staff working at these regulators fell by 30% in this period. Enforcement activities – from inspections and sampling, to sanctions and prosecutions – have fallen dramatically.

The UK is suffering from a dangerous enforcement gap. Unless addressed, it will likely widen as we extricate ourselves from the European institutions which currently hold regulatory oversight for many areas. Local and national regulators, already stretched to breaking point, face substantial increases to their workloads and responsibilities. Local food law staff, for example, will be to take on additional food safety controls in support of UK exports and to manage risks from increasing food imports as new trading partners gain access to UK markets. If the UK regulatory system is to stand a chance of mitigating these kinds of new risks, our enforcement teams must be given the resources they need.

Furthermore, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, there is a strong case for a reappraisal of ‘pro-business’ policy approaches designed to reduce the UK’s regulatory stock and scale back on enforcement. This political imperative, institutionalised through a policy evaluation process which assesses the value of regulation and regulatory enforcement primarily in economic terms, has created a system of perverse incentives, where departments are ranked by their progress in minimising regulatory costs to business and UK enforcers are compelled to act like commercial organizations.

This narrow approach is likely to generate outcomes which are directly antithetical to public policy goals. It does not favour responsible UK businesses – who rely on strong rules and robust enforcement to reduce the risk of being undercut by non-compliant competitors. Nor is it supported by the majority of the public, as research by organisations as diverse as the Legatum Institute, the Institute for Public Policy Research and NatCen has shown. Most people support common-sense regulations and value the enforcement teams who ensure they are upheld.

For too long have we neglected front-line enforcement teams – our fifth emergency service. The erosion of enforcement capacity undermines the ability of national and local regulators to discharge their statutory responsibilities, and undermines public trust in institutions at a time when it is sorely needed.

The Prime Minister promises that Britain will maintain our ‘unrivalled track record of promoting high standards’ after we leave the EU. If this is to be realised, sensible regulations must be recognised as a societal good, and our hard-working enforcement bodies treasured for the valuable contribution they make to society.  It is no exaggeration to say that if we fail to do so, the consequences may be fatal.

Emma Rose is Director of Unchecked UK.

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An estimated seven per cent of children in the UK have a food allergy.  In the best case scenario, consuming a food containing an allergen could mean an unpleasant reaction such as a rash or vomiting.  But in the worst case scenario, an allergic reaction will kill.

Now, new research from Unchecked UK, published in The Times, has found that nearly one in five food samples taken by Local Authorities in England, Scotland and Wales contained potentially fatal hidden allergens.    The study also found that over the past three years the number of food samples tested for allergens has fallen by over a quarter – with 20 Local Authorities taking no allergen samples at all.

Meanwhile, NHS statistics show that hospital admissions in England for anaphylactic shock caused by adverse food reactions rose by nearly 70 per cent in the last decade, and that admissions of children under 14 years old has more than doubled over this period. The Food Standards Agency itself has said that around ten people die from allergic reactions to food every year due to undeclared allergenic ingredients.

Clearly, all is not well with the UK’s food law enforcement system.

Food businesses are required by law to tell customers if their food contains any one of 14 major allergens, either by highlighting them in ingredients lists, or providing full allergen information on menus, notices, or labels.

But reported allergy incidents resulting from wrongly labelled packaging have increased steadily in recent years, raising concerns about whether Local Authorities – who oversee local food businesses – have the resources they need for the job. There are now just three local food law enforcement staff in post per 1000 UK food establishments, with numbers falling by a third since 2009. Total food sampling has plummeted by nearly 60 per cent since 2009.

Welcome efforts have been made recently by the Government to address shortcomings in the food regulatory system. ‘Natasha’s Law’ – the new allergen labelling requirements for businesses in England selling food prepacked for direct sale – has been brought forward following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016 and is due to come into force in October 2021. But if the new law is policed as weakly as the existing requirements, will anything really change?

The stark findings of our study illustrate that regulation is only as good as the enforcement that underpins it. In the case of UK food law, the gaps are looming large.

And while these findings provide cause for alarm in their own right, they are part of a wider cumulative trend away from regulation and enforcement, evidenced by a staggering decline in almost every metric of enforcement activity across the spectrum of public protection. Unchecked UK research finds that, from 2009-17, real terms funding for the environmental and social protection work of ten key national regulators fell on average by 50%. The total number of full-time staff working at these regulators fell by 30% in this period. Enforcement activities – from inspections and sampling, to sanctions and prosecutions – have fallen dramatically.

The UK is suffering from a dangerous enforcement gap. Unless addressed, it will likely widen as we extricate ourselves from the European institutions which currently hold regulatory oversight for many areas. Local and national regulators, already stretched to breaking point, face substantial increases to their workloads and responsibilities. Local food law staff, for example, will be to take on additional food safety controls in support of UK exports and to manage risks from increasing food imports as new trading partners gain access to UK markets. If the UK regulatory system is to stand a chance of mitigating these kinds of new risks, our enforcement teams must be given the resources they need.

Furthermore, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, there is a strong case for a reappraisal of ‘pro-business’ policy approaches designed to reduce the UK’s regulatory stock and scale back on enforcement. This political imperative, institutionalised through a policy evaluation process which assesses the value of regulation and regulatory enforcement primarily in economic terms, has created a system of perverse incentives, where departments are ranked by their progress in minimising regulatory costs to business and UK enforcers are compelled to act like commercial organizations.

This narrow approach is likely to generate outcomes which are directly antithetical to public policy goals. It does not favour responsible UK businesses – who rely on strong rules and robust enforcement to reduce the risk of being undercut by non-compliant competitors. Nor is it supported by the majority of the public, as research by organisations as diverse as the Legatum Institute, the Institute for Public Policy Research and NatCen has shown. Most people support common-sense regulations and value the enforcement teams who ensure they are upheld.

For too long have we neglected front-line enforcement teams – our fifth emergency service. The erosion of enforcement capacity undermines the ability of national and local regulators to discharge their statutory responsibilities, and undermines public trust in institutions at a time when it is sorely needed.

The Prime Minister promises that Britain will maintain our ‘unrivalled track record of promoting high standards’ after we leave the EU. If this is to be realised, sensible regulations must be recognised as a societal good, and our hard-working enforcement bodies treasured for the valuable contribution they make to society.  It is no exaggeration to say that if we fail to do so, the consequences may be fatal.

Emma Rose is Director of Unchecked UK.

< BACK