Food Labelling and Allergy-Related Deaths

– in the House of Commons at 3:43 pm on 9th October 2018.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 3:43 pm, 9th October 2018

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what action he is taking to improve the quality of UK food labelling to prevent further allergy-related deaths.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Order. Before I call the Minister to respond, I should make it clear that I have waived the sub judice resolution to allow reference to the inquest into the death of Mrs Celia Marsh. However, I ask right hon. and hon. Members to exercise caution in referring to that case—if they are minded to do so at all—in order to avoid any possible prejudice to those proceedings.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

First, I want to say how deeply upsetting the deaths of Celia Marsh and Natasha Ednan-Laperouse are and that my heart goes out to the families, friends and loved ones affected by those tragedies. This House will appreciate that investigations into Celia Marsh’s death are ongoing and it would be inappropriate for Ministers to make further comment on this particular incident at this stage. However, Members should be in no doubt about how seriously we take these issues. It is essential that all UK consumers have complete trust in the food they are eating.

Current food labelling law is set out in the EU’s food information to consumers legislation. This legislation includes a list of 14 allergens, including milk and sesame, which are legally considered to be mandatory information that must be available to consumers. The regulations currently allow for some flexibility at a national level as to how this information is provided on food that is not pre-packed and food which is “pre-packed for direct sale”. The former includes products such as loose cookies or sandwiches which are prepared and wrapped directly for the consumer. The latter category—“pre-packed for direct sale”—includes products such as freshly prepared sandwiches made on site, as compared with packaged food such as a chocolate bar or ready meal that we might find in a supermarket.

I must make it absolutely clear that, under the current regulations, information must be made available to the consumer in all cases. However, whereas packaged food must include all allergens in bold in the ingredients list, information about non pre-packed food, such as pre-packed food for direct sale, can be made available by any means the operator chooses, including the use of clear signs indicating that the customer should speak to a member of staff who will provide the information orally.

As the Secretary of State announced at the start of this year, we have been looking at developing new approaches to food labelling to ensure that consumers have the information they need. The death of Natasha has shone a harsh spotlight on the issue of allergen labelling in particular and whether the current framework is still suitable. Natasha’s parents have made a powerful case for change, and I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the tremendous grace and strength they have shown in these particularly challenging circumstances.

The Secretary of State has asked the Department for urgent advice on how we can strengthen the current allergen labelling framework. That review is under way, and DEFRA is working closely with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Health and Social Care. This morning we received the coroner’s report into Natasha’s death and we will study it very carefully as part of that review. Tomorrow, DEFRA will be holding talks with the devolved Administrations to see what approach they may wish to take, as this is a devolved matter.

We take this issue very seriously. I assure Members that we are working at pace to review the current rules and will set out our proposed way forward as soon as possible.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. The Minister is absolutely right: it is the tragic cases of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and Celia Marsh that have thrown into sharp focus the common practices used by high-street convenience food providers to avoid doing all in their power to ensure their customers are safe. The Minister says the Government are taking this very seriously, but if that were the case surely the Secretary of State would be here to respond to the urgent question.

For years, this situation has been defended by the Government, who have said that tighter definition around, for example, regulation 5 of the food information regulations would be damaging to small business. But when did the Minister last review food label standards, and, given that regulations are supposed to be the bare minimum expected of companies, what have the Government done to make clear their expectations of food providers? The Minister referred to the expectation that, where there is signage, staff would be asked by customers whether there were any products with allergens, but how does he know whether those staff have been properly trained? Does he still think that signposting is sufficient as notice of potential allergy risks?

Have the Minister or the Secretary of State ever told larger companies that the expectations of Government are higher for them, given their vast customer base and extensive resources? Pret now says that it will include full ingredient labelling on all products—so they can do this when they want to. Must it always take a tragedy to effect meaningful change from this Government? Has the Secretary of State ever put this case across when in meetings with representatives of the sector?

Earlier in the year the Secretary of State spoke of “gold standard” food labelling but failed to mention allergies. Do he or his Department regret putting off a review of food labelling until after Brexit? If the Department introduces new legislation as recommended by the coroner in this inquest, will he also be ensuring that the Food Standards Agency is adequately resourced to make preventive checks in advance of another fatal incident occurring? Finally, does the Minister agree that, with food allergies seemingly on the rise, improved labelling, regulations around labelling and broader education about food allergies need to be put to the top of his “to do” list?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

I thank the hon. Lady for her points, which she has raised with great sincerity and conviction, as always. I am sure that food is an important priority for the businesses in her constituency; it certainly is for many of us as well. She made an important point about discussions with small businesses. The Food Standards Agency, with whom I have been speaking this afternoon, is responsible for policy, and our local authorities work hard to take forward enforcement. In those conversations, it is clear that we are taking forward campaigns to improve awareness among consumers and businesses.

The hon. Lady also made important points about the steps that Pret a Manger is taking. It has set out what it is going to be doing initially, and it will—like the rest of us, particularly officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—be studying the coroner’s report carefully, as it sets out some challenging conclusions. Pret will want to consider how it will approach its business in the light of those conclusions. I hope that I have set out clearly that it is a priority that we take action here, and as I have said, this is something that Secretary of State talked about in January, saying that we wanted to move this forward. Clearly, because of these tragic cases, that work needs to be accelerated with real pace.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

These are tragic cases, and it is clear that the law needs to be updated. Will my hon. Friend tell us how quickly he expects the law to be changed in this regard? Will they also say more about what the Government are doing to provide guidance to retailers, to ensure that this type of tragedy does not happen again?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions. As I have said, we are taking this review forward at pace, and it is now being accelerated so that we can take forward a review of food standards and food labelling at real pace.

The other thing that we have been doing—clearly, in the light of these cases, we need to do more—is to make consumers and businesses aware of the options available, particularly to consumers. It is worth highlighting that we need to find ways of communicating to 16 to 24-year-olds, who are very vulnerable, the ways in which they can find the important information that they need when making food choices.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Clearly, the recent news of these two deaths caused by allergic reactions to Pret a Manger products has been absolutely tragic; I would like to echo the Minister’s earlier comments and say that all our thoughts are with the families and friends of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and Celia Marsh. These cases have demonstrated just how serious food allergies can be and the fatal consequences that can ensue. That is why proper, rigorous food labelling is paramount to our food safety standards. It was welcome that the Prime Minister called last week for a review of food labelling laws; that is something that I agree with and support. The Minister mentioned the review earlier, but when can we expect further information on when it will be completed and what it is likely to contain?

I appreciate that it is early days, following these events, but as we have seen, food labelling is a serious public health matter. To that end, what discussions have DEFRA Ministers and officials had with their colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care? We welcome the fact that Pret a Manger and other retailers such as Greggs have said that they will review how they label their food. Pret is now saying that it will list all the ingredients, including allergens, in its freshly made products, but we need this to happen right across the board. This is absolutely vital for people with life-threatening food allergies. Full ingredients lists should not just be a “nice to have”. For some people, they really are the difference between life and death. Food producers, suppliers and retailers have a public health duty to ensure that every food item is properly labelled.

Tomorrow, we will be discussing the Government’s Agriculture Bill, which will mean that the Environment Secretary will be in charge of our nation’s food production for the first time in decades. The Bill also provides a unique opportunity to put in place strong laws around food that could include the full labelling of all ingredients, allergens in particular. As we have heard, the Food Standards Agency states that food products containing the 14 main ingredients likely to cause an allergic reaction must be labelled as such and that manufacturers must then make it clear whether products contain those allergens. However, under EU law, as the Minister mentioned earlier, that can be done orally—it does not have to be written down—so customers will have to go out of their way to ask staff if allergens are not listed on a label.

I am pleased that the Minister referred to that anomaly but, as requested by my hon. Friend Melanie Onn, does the Minister believe that it is time that to mandate that all allergens must be set out clearly in written format? Will he provide the House with a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no attempt to water down any current food labelling laws after Brexit? For example, in US law only eight major allergens have to be listed, as opposed to the FSA’s 14, and any trade deal with the US cannot come at the price of watered-down food safety standards. We clearly need urgent action to ensure that British food labelling is as good as it possibly can be to ensure that such tragic cases never happen again.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. She makes penetrating points, as always. As the father of a daughter with allergy problems, I assure her that I take such things incredibly seriously. I have recently come to this post—we have worked together on issues such as the ivory ban—and she can rest assured that I will be taking this matter up with the utmost seriousness and will tackle it as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

When will we make it a requirement to label halal and kosher products as such to better inform consumers who may or may not wish to buy such products?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

I will come back to my hon. Friend with further thoughts when we can meet to discuss that matter further.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse was my constituent. When I met her father early last year, he relived the hour he spent trying to save her life on the British Airways flight from Heathrow to Nice. No parent should have to go through such an appalling experience. I say gently to the Minister that I think he is the wrong person giving the wrong response today. Pret and the other food outlets have passed the buck to the Government, and the Government should not pass matters of policy to the Food Standards Agency. Will he at least say when the review will report back and whether he will issue unofficial guidelines to food outlets in the meantime about listing ingredients and contamination? Finally, will he co-ordinate with his colleagues in Government on consumer safety? Local authorities are now so denuded of funds that trading standards and other agencies are unable to enforce the law even as it is.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

I am sitting next to a Health and Social Care Minister, so I can assure Andy Slaughter that we will be working closely and carefully across Government. He makes an important point about the tragic circumstances in which Natasha’s parents found themselves, and this situation is testament to them and the way that they have conducted themselves. The Secretary of State has written to them and is keen to meet them to discuss their concerns and how to move things forward. The report will be swift, but we received the coroner’s report only today and it sets out some challenging conclusions to which we need to respond properly.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean Conservative, Redditch

I am sure that every one of us who is a parent will have found the account of what Natasha’s parents had to go through harrowing and awful. I am therefore delighted that the Minister is responding as he is. Does he agree that a new law to recognise their daughter would be a fitting tribute to their bravery and dedication?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

Absolutely. As a parent, one can barely consider what they must have gone through during those hours on the flight and afterwards.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Speaking as one who always has to carry two epipens, I think that the Government need to take a wider view. Please could the review also include restaurant food and will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department of Health about better training for medics and paramedics and more research into this growing crisis?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

Yes, it does need to be wide. Yes, we need to involve other areas such as training for paramedics. We need to make sure that there is much better information and training. It is very serious, and I will make sure that that happens.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells

I very much echo the condolences offered from the Dispatch Box, and warmly welcome the review that my hon. Friend the Minister has outlined today. However, in my constituency there are dozens of small food producers, many of whom produce food for direct sale at markets around Somerset and the wider south-west. While my hon. Friend will want to strengthen the regulations for large retailers, may I encourage him to apply some common sense in the way in which we apply them to small producers selling locally?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

Common sense, yes, but the priority has to be food safety. UK consumers need to feel safe when they consume food, wherever it may be, and we need to find mechanisms to ensure that, whether food manufacturers and retailers are small or large, they get information across to consumers. It needs to be proportionate, but it needs to be effective as well.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I am sure that the hearts of the whole House went out to Natasha’s family as they relived at the coroner’s inquest her tragic and avoidable death. Natasha was a careful consumer who was not given the information that she needed from Pret a Manger to keep herself safe. Does her death not show that the current food labelling regulations are not fit for purpose? Will the Minister ensure that no amount of special pleading, loopholes and laxity on the part of the food industry deters him from his, I am sure, definite intent to tighten the labelling regulations, strengthen trading standards enforcement and increase the money that goes from his Department to the public analysts so that food in shops can be tested?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

As I have said on several occasions in responding to this urgent question, there is no question but that we need to strengthen the regulations. We need to get to grips with the coroner’s report. I echo the hon. Lady’s point that there should be no wriggling off the hook here. It is important that Pret a Manger and other companies look at that report and its implications and work out how they are going to respond.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

It is 30 years since my father was diagnosed as a coeliac—a condition that I know is shared by at least one person on the Treasury Bench this afternoon. In that time, we have gone from having to walk round a supermarket with a book, hoping that ingredients had not changed since it was published, to being able to rely on the labelling on a product to know whether it is suitable for him.

What further progress does the Minister think that the Government could make in looking at technological solutions that allow consumers to use smart phones and apps to get a full list of ingredients, not just the ones that might be on a label?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need to look at all means possible to provide the information. It is pivotal that we respond to the needs particularly of 16 to 24-year-olds, who are beginning to make independent choices about their food. Let us find ways of making that information available. Technology will be important, especially for that generation.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Most of those who suffer from food allergies rely on medicines to manage their reactions, but the data sheets for the medicines themselves are often incomplete. A constituent explained to me last week that medicines for handling anaphylactic reactions can often include lactose and soya without having that on the data sheet. So as well as looking to his own departmental responsibilities, will he speak to his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that when people rely on medicines, they know that they can use them safely?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

That is another important point, and I will make sure officials factor it into their review; we need to work closely with colleagues from the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure it is factored into the approach we take forward.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee

As well as more careful food labelling, will my hon. Friend look at fake labelling? I do not know whether he has seen today’s Daily Mail, which suggests that the claims made by Pret a Manger of supplying fresh bread are far from the case and that the bread is actually frozen for a year and comes from France. It is important that consumers are not deceived—they pay a lot of money for these products. Will he therefore look at fake labelling and make sure that it does not happen?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

We should be proud of the standard of our food in the UK; we are world-renowned for it. My right hon. Friend makes an important point: retailers and manufacturers need to be transparent about the quality of their food. We want it to be of the highest level. We need to be clear as to where the product—in this case, bread—is sourced from and how it is then prepared for consumption. All these things need to be much more transparent for the consumer—he is absolutely right.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

Pret is not a small corner shop, but a large industrial producer of food. It baked into that baguette a known allergen and then proceeded to sell it without labelling it, using a loophole meant for small corner shops. The Minister should be outraged about that. I welcome the fact he has said he will strengthen the law, but what is he going to do to strengthen enforcement and the capacity of trading standards and the FSA to enforce the rules? Enforcement is as important as getting the rules right.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

Yes, we need to get the rules right, we need to enforce and we need to ensure that business steps up to the plate. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that Pret is not a corner shop, but a major player in the food sector. I hope Members of this House will read the coroner’s report, because it is incredibly challenging and Pret needs to step up to the plate and see what the reports are—[Interruption.] She asks from a sedentary position what the Department is doing. As I have said, we are going to be strengthening the allergen labelling framework. That review is under way, but I hope she will understand when I say that we do need to take into account what the coroner’s report has said and we received it only this morning.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I absolutely share the sentiments that have been expressed this afternoon, but in advance of being able to change the law is there any scope for an industry-led approach, working with Government, to see things improve sooner?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

It is important that we take forward this review to ensure that this is done robustly, but it is crucial that businesses step forward and address any concerns that consumers have. It is good business practice and businesses should be doing it.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Surely the Government should step out of their complacent attitude to regulation and strengthen enforcement, too. Instead of seeing regulation as something to be avoided and red tape as a dirty word, surely it is about time the Minister and his Department stepped up to the plate and did the things that need to be done to protect the consumer.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

And we are; I have said on numerous occasions that we will be strengthening the allergen labelling framework. We are committed to doing that—

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

As soon as possible, because we do not want to see any more of these cases that we have so tragically heard about in recent days; we need to take the steps to do that in an organised way.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The investigation into Natasha’s death showed that she died a tragic and avoidable death, one that could have been prevented by better food labelling. I welcome the fact that the Minister is looking at this issue with great speed. Can he give any indication about the timeframe, because others remain at risk during this period?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

I cannot given any further indication, other than that we will be working at pace and taking the report forward as soon as possible. As Members have said—and I feel the same way—we want to make sure that all consumers are safe. I re-emphasise, though, that the coroner’s report has only just been received and we need to take it into account in the final conclusions.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

Food labelling concerns put pressure on the NHS as people check for allergies. Knowing about an allergy can be a matter of life or death. What are the Government doing to approve and promote fast and reliable tests to diagnose allergies and help to save lives?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

We need to work closely with the hospitals, and I will work closely on this with my colleagues in the Department. Interesting feedback mechanisms are being piloted in the north-east, where hospitals are providing feedback to local authorities on allergies and how best to respond to them. That sort of best practice needs to be taken forward.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

For how long does the Minister think that large conglomerates have been taking advantage of this loophole, in the form of looser regulation of food prepared on the premises, which is meant to protect small businesses? What message will he send out to those conglomerates to stop taking advantage of it prior to the publication of his review?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

When the initial regulations were established, stakeholders were involved in framing them, and those stakeholders included organisations involved with allergy work. There are some situations, especially those involving younger people who may not be familiar with packaging, in which people can have a conversation with an individual across the counter so that they can understand what allergens might be in a particular product. I have had those conversations myself. That is a mechanism and we need to make sure that it is properly enforced. As I have said a couple of times at the Dispatch Box, it is really important that businesses look into how they can increase consumer confidence in their work. We will take forward at pace the review of the regulations, in order to play our part, too.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I add my condolences to those expressed for the family and friends of the two victims.

In January, on being notified by the coroner that Celia Marsh had died at the Royal United Hospital in Bath, Bath and North East Somerset Council notified Pret A Manger, but it appears that the council did not notify the FSA, which was notified by Pret A Manger six weeks later—a long delay. What public responsibility does Bath and North East Somerset Council trading standards have to regulate and enforce food safety in our city?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

I am not able to give a complete update on the situation in respect of Celia Marsh’s death because the investigations are still ongoing. On the hon. Lady’s point about enforcement in her local area, I will gladly meet her and we can decide how to take the matter forward.