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A hard truth to swallow: Why is the food we eat still killing us?

CommunicationsRisk & Crisis
A hard truth to swallow: Why is the food we eat still killing us?
jen upton author 2

Written by Jen Upton, Head of Risk and Crisis Preparedness

Over the last 20 years, UK hospital admissions from food-related anaphylaxis has increased three-fold. An extraordinary rise when you consider that the level of food safety knowledge within the industry must far surpass that of two decades ago. It’s an uncomfortable truth that we shouldn’t accept, but rather confront and challenge.

Fortunately, I will never know the true anxiety that must keep those with allergy awake at night. I can only hope that CEOs within the food industry are equally troubled and strive to ensure their food safety nightmares don’t materialise. However, considering the rise of anaphylactic hospital admissions, it’s quite clear that more needs to be done.

Granted, the food industry is more complex than 20 years ago. Supply chains are global and fragmented. Costs are rising. Staff turn-over is high. There are labour shortages, changing regulations and many other challenges besides… But does this really mean we have to accept a harsh new reality, one in which we have to hope our food is safe to eat? No, it doesn’t.

In fact, a recent inquest into a food-related anaphylactic fatality reveals no new or surprising failings. Inadequate testing of a free-from product, insufficient labelling, and poor communication within the supply chain. Regrettably, just a series of common problems within the food industry which, when combined, have resulted in another tragic and untimely death.

We can, and must, do better. So, what actions does the food industry need to take to keep vulnerable consumers safe?

  • Thorough testing. ‘Free-from’ should mean free-from. All food business that make these claims, no matter where they are in the supply chain, should conduct frequent testing of said products and undergo third-party auditing in order to validate their manufacturing processes. This is especially critical when considering the risk to people with allergies of cross-contamination.
  • Clearer labelling. Linked to the above, all products that claim ‘free from’ on the label – and even those that claim to be vegan (which is sometimes used as a proxy to allergen management) – should have to be able to verify this claim in order to display it on packaging. Perhaps aided by a new certification scheme. Then more challenging, but certainly doable, the food industry must also move away from alibi labelling (‘may contain’) which can be vague and confusing for anaphylactic consumers.
  • Improved communication. Potential risks, significant near misses, failures. It may not always be a comfortable conversation but better communication between suppliers and customers will benefit everyone in the supply chain. Business critical information – which can inform life-saving decisions – should be communicated accurately, frequently and be supported by proper record keeping.

Frustratingly, these points of failure and possible solutions are well known by the food industry. They are often topics of discussion at industry events, and some (braver) food businesses willingly share their experiences, learnings and corrective actions in an effort to move the industry forward.

Yet here we are, still talking about what needs to change, while the number of food-related anaphylaxis incidents continues to rise.

Until regulation catches up, food businesses must step up. Acting on what they know. What they’ve learnt. Striving to speed up improvements in regulation. Or in the very least, making changes to how they operate because it’s the right thing to do, not just waiting to implement new ways of working until they’re being audited against it.

Because what is the alternative? For those who are allergic to continue living at the mercy of an industry they hope won’t kill them? How can anyone stomach that?

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