December 2014

Forensic analysis must be used to combat allergen fatalities

In a paper published in Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture this week (‘Food allergy, a summary of eight cases in the UK criminal and civil courts: effective last resort for vulnerable consumers?’), Michael Walker, consultant science manager and referee analyst for the Government Chemist programme, and Hazel Gowland, Allergy Action and food adviser for the UK Anaphylaxis Campaign, call for thorough investigation of food allergy deaths and a more tenacious and skilled approach.

Following a review of court cases in the UK involving fatalities, personal injury, or criminal non-compliance with food law, Michael and Hazel conclude that there are knowledge and skills gaps, both in the investigation and prosecution of potentially serious incidents of food allergen mismanagement and mislabelling.

Investigations require early realisation that samples of the food and/or stomach contents from a post mortem examination should be retained and analysed and the supply chain must be rigorously examined to find out where adulteration or contamination with the fatal allergen occurred.

Each year there is an average of 10 deaths as a result of food allergies and potentially many more near misses.  With a charge of corporate manslaughter available under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, forensic analysis following food allergy deaths must improve if allergen related fatalities are to be reduced.

All food companies throughout the EU are compelled by law to declare major allergens used as ingredients. The current labelling rules ensure that all consumers are given information about the use of common allergenic ingredients in pre-packed food. This is to make it easier for people with food allergies to identify the foods they need to avoid. From 13 December 2014 the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC) will change the way allergen information appears on labels and extend the requirement to inform consumers to food that is sold loose or served when eating out.

The authors of the paper claim that non-compliances should be followed up in a more rapid and robust manner and evidence of fraud in the catering supply chain should be met with zero tolerance. This is an approach recommended by Professor Chris Elliott following his review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks following the horse meat scandal in 2013. In his interim report published in December 2013 he stated: “where margins are tight and the potential for fraud is high, even minor dishonesties must be discouraged and the response to major dishonesties deliberately punitive.”

The authors also urge food businesses to “guard against short cuts or gaps in allergen management” and point out that there are “many readily available sources of advice, training and guidance” that can help to ensure staff of all levels are aware of their responsibilities however they acknowledge that more needs to be done to guard against unwitting or fraudulent substitution in the supply chain.

Visit the Wiley Online Library to read the paper 'Food Allergy, a summary of 8 cases in the UK criminal and civil courts: effective last resort for vulnerable consumers?'.