New research by Unchecked.uk and the Times has found that nearly one in five food samples in England, Wales and Scotland contains at least one undeclared allergen.
Out of 6,602 food samples tested for allergens by Local Authorities in 2016, 2017 and 2018, 1,213 were found to contain traces of allergenic substances. In each case there was no indication of the allergen’s presence in the food product.
In Scotland just under 8 per cent contained an undeclared allergen, in England more than 20 per cent of samples, and in Wales nearly 44 per cent.
Samples were taken from local food premises, such as manufacturers, takeaways, restaurants, hospitals, schools and care homes. In each case there was reportedly no declaration of the allergen’s presence in the food product.
Peanuts were the most commonly detected allergen, found in five per cent of tested food samples, but a range of high-risk allergens were found, including gluten, milk, egg, sulphites, soya, sesame, mustard and other nuts.
Emma Rose, Director of Unchecked.uk said “These figures show that there is a real postcode lottery when it comes to food sampling. In the worst-case scenario, unknowingly consuming an allergen can prove fatal – and that is why the law requires food businesses to tell people what allergens their food contains,”
“But regulation is only as good as the enforcement that underpins it. And it is clear that in the case of UK food law, the enforcement gap is looming large. Cuts in staff and funding have stretched regulators to breaking point, and the fall in enforcement activities is putting lives at risk.”
The fall in sampling in the last three years is part of a wider long-term decline in total food sampling, the researchers suggested, which has reportedly fallen by approximately 60 percent since 2009. According to the analysis, food law enforcement staff numbers have also fallen by a third since 2009, and there are now just three staff in post per 1,000 UK food establishments.
“This is critically important work. The presence of unlabelled allergens in a range of foods is potentially life-threatening for increasing numbers of consumers with allergies, intolerances and coeliac disease. Sampling by Local Authority Food Officers and testing by Public Analysts are essential to ensure food is safe and labelling is correct. These results are a major concern, indicating the urgent need for additional local authority resources to protect consumers,” said Dr Hazel Gowland, a leading expert in food allergy risks.
“Local authorities are required to prepare and publish a food sampling policy which commits them to providing the resources necessary to carry out a food sampling programme. Sampling programmes are expected to be risk based. Eating food outside of the home presents a risk to those with an allergic disease and sampling is the only way to ensure that caterers are managing these risks adequately if at all,” added Dr Duncan Campbell, Honorary Secretary of the Association of Public Analysts.