Trade press reports have highlighted a spate of recent recalls relating to food and drink products in the UK resulting from labelling errors. Examples include foods recalled because of salt crystals not mentioned on the packaging (which represent a potential choking hazard), chocolate drinking straws with labels not in English (with allergen information therefore not easily comprehended) and several products which contained allergens, including sulphur dioxide and/ or sulphites, not correctly mentioned on the label.

Where a product is not in compliance with food safety requirements (and may have reached the consumer) a food business operator is required by law to effectively and accurately inform the consumers of the reason for its withdrawal from sale, and when other measures are not sufficient to achieve a high level of health protection, recall from consumers products already supplied to them (under Article 19 of the EU General Food Law Regulation (178/2002)). A ‘recall’ is any measure or set of measures intended to achieve the return of unsafe food and is likely to include measures intended to trace the affected products, communications to customers, management of returns and quarantining/ disposing of any returned products.

In practice, there are a number of safety-related reasons that a food or drink product might be withdrawn from sale and/ or recalled. For example, it could have been found to:

  • contain harmful bacteria, such as salmonella or listeria;
  • not meet permitted levels for substances such as pesticides (this was the reason for recalls across Europe in August this year of eggs contaminated with the insecticide Fiprinol and, in UK, of products made with those eggs, such as egg salads);
  • be physically contaminated, for example with pieces of glass, plastic, or metal; and/ or
  • be labelled incorrectly, which could be a particular problem for people with food allergies.

A recent European recall and notification index produced by a UK waste solution company, showed that in quarter 3 of 2017, bacterial contamination was the top cause of food recalls reported on RASFF (the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) accounting for over 26% of food recalls. However, manufacturers and retailers must remain alert to the risks posed by incorrect, inaccurate, or illegible labels, as well as contamination, in light of the number of recalls relating to labelling reported on the Food Standards Agency’s website over the last month.Responsibilities for labelling should be clearly defined under agreements, for example between the manufacturer, importer and/ or third party packaging/ labelling company; and safeguards should be in place to ensure allergen labelling is accurate. Such safeguards might include requirements for suppliers to conduct and provide copy allergen risk assessments, for allergen information to be communicated through ingredient specifications and checked, for labels to be checked and signed off before use, to ensure that labels are updated when specifications change, to have dedicated packing lines where possible to reduce the risk of mislabelling and regular checks/ audits as to label compliance and accuracy.

The ongoing trend of global recalls in the food sector means operators are well advised to plan for a recall before any issue is identified, in the same way as planning for any other crisis management procedures. The development of a written recall policy and protocol and regular reviews to ensure it remains fit for purpose, is a sensible step for any food business operator.