The UK is often seen as a place where food production is strictly controlled. However, major health scares from food sold within the UK has been highlighted in recent years with high profile deaths making headline news.
An incorrectly labelled sandwich from Pret A Manger lead to the death of a teen in 2016. The sandwich contained sesame seeds but were not listed on the label. Product withdrawals were carried out across all stores. This triggered a review of labelling regulations bringing into force new requirements.
June 2019 saw a further 5 fatalities due to a listeria outbreak from products manufactured by The Good Food Chain supplying 43 NHS trust organisations across the country. These incidents sparked a mass food withdrawal across the country with production halted.
Hundreds of other product recalls and withdrawals are publicised every year, whether it be from a local newspaper or a national news outlet. Information is more easily accessible to the public, allowing manufacturers to spread the word more easily. With growing public interest in health, more people are aware of the severity of food related issues. They may appear to be as minor as a misprint on packaging or as major as broken glass. One thing that is clear, is that they can all have serious consequences.
Shockingly, the Food standards agency (FSA) has reported a 36% increase in alerts issued in 2018/19 compared to that of 2017/18. With allergy alerts increasing by 28% and food alerts increasing by 52%. There are many different reasons put forward as to why this increase has happened:
Increased awareness of consequences
There appears to be more public awareness and knowledge of consequences especially with allergen control. Manufacturers and retailers understand the importance of recalling or withdrawing products from the market, therefore they are taking less risk when deciding to take action. It seems likely that this is happening at least at some level.
A more saturated market and increased number of food manufacturers
Some outside the food industry point to increased competition as a cause. With more products on the market the theory goes, competition to keep prices low mean cheaper raw materials sourced. This in turn creates pressure for manufacturers to cut corners reducing overhead costs in technical departments. This feels an unlikely reason – as there have always been cost pressures in food and drink. In addition, produce recalls don’t especially correlate with lower profitability.
Methods of detecting issues becoming more advanced
Advancements in technology allows for more accurate product testing which is helping food manufacturers discover faults in raw materials and final products. Technology has advanced rapidly over the last few decades, allowing for more in-depth detail of food safety and quality. This is a likely reason for part of the growth in recalls.
Stricter labelling requirements
Although food safety regulations haven’t changed much in recent years, labelling regulations introduced in 2014 under the EU’s food information to consumers has meant that there is less room for error and increased recalls due to stricter rules. Perhaps this is fuelling some of the growth but its not ‘new news’ to food firms.
An increase in ‘Free from’ foods
The free from foods market is booming giving more choice to consumers. Manufactures face stricter rules to produce these higher risk foods. With the increased risk to consumers, manufacturers are applying a ‘safety first’ approach meaning that product recalls will increase. Yes, a larger market could be expected to drive more recalls but just as likely is that the increase in production scale could be seen to be driving standards up.
The reason for the increase could be due to a mixture of all of the reasons listed. Although there has been a major rise, the FSA is keen to point out that it only represents a tiny proportion of the food manufactured and sold around the UK each year.
Should we be concerned about the increase, or does it show that food manufacturers are taking less risk and more responsibility?
Postscript: As an example, here is a months worth of UK recalls – make your own mind up:
12th July 2019
Windmill Organic Ltd is recalling organic amisa lactose free rice milk chocolate rice cakes because they contain milk which is not mentioned on the label.
12th July 2019
Leonidas boxed assortment of Belgian Chocolates may contain varieties of chocolates that contain sesame seeds and nuts which are not declared on the label of some boxes.
15th July 2019
Tan Y Castell recalls its Chocolate Chip Griddles because they may contain milk which Is not mentioned on the label. This means the product is a possible health risk for anyone with an allergy or intolerance to milk or milk constituents.
9th August 19
Sainsbury’s recalls Deliciously Free From 4 Fruity Hot Cross Buns by Sainsbury’s because of undeclared soya.
8th August 19
Lidl GB recalls SPEEDFEAST Quarter Pounder with Cheese because of incorrect allergen labelling.
13th August 19
Raw Treat Pet Food Ltd recalls Varieties of Frozen Raw Pet Food due to the presence of Salmonella.
14th August 19
Waitrose recalls Waitrose Sweet Potato & Coconut Soup and Waitrose Roasted Tomato, Bean & Quinoa Soup because of undeclared soya.