A fifth of food samples taken by local authority food inspectors are contaminated with allergens, according to the Unchecked UK campaign and The Times newspaper.
Unchecked UK, which campaigns on safety regulation, investigated allergen contamination at food premises over a three-year period.
Discovering that the UK Food Surveillance System does not include specific coding on allergens, the campaign sent out Freedom of Information requests to local authorities across England, Wales and Scotland for food standards sampling information between 2016 and 2018.
All 201 councils responded, and the campaign discovered that out of 6,602 food samples tested for allergens, 1,213 samples tested positive – nearly one in five.
Unchecked UK acknowledged that because these results were not obtained through random testing, the proportion of failed results is likely to be higher than in reality. Councils may target poorly performing food businesses, or be reacting to a tip-off from the public.
However, project lead Emma Rose added: “The fact that samples containing hidden allergens were likely to be mostly taken from high-risk businesses doesn't negate the fact that plenty of these business are serving food to people every day – and that some of their customers are consuming food containing hidden allergens.
“In addition, high-risk food businesses are often those with heavy footfall, such as takeaways and fast-food outlets.”
The campaign has concerns about the significant variation between local authorities as to how, when and why sampling is carried out. Rose said: “This also means that the efficacy and consistency of the national allergen sampling regime is extremely vulnerable to external pressures and resource constraints.”
She added: “In order to really get a handle of the scale of the problem, there needs to be real improvements to the way food is tested for allergens. At the moment it is somewhat of a postcode lottery with some councils taken hundreds of samples, and 20 taking none at all over this three-year period. Ultimately, this shake-up needs to be driven by the FSA, who are responsible for issuing centralised guidance to LAs.”
Rose said there are just three local authority staff in post per 1,000 UK food establishments, and that food law enforcement staff numbers had fallen by a third since 2009, which was “already having a material impact on enforcement activities”.
She added: “Natasha's Law will go a long way to plugging a gap in food safety legislation. But ultimately, regulations are only as good as the enforcement that underpins them. And it's clear that local authority food law teams are already struggling to carry out their existing duties.
“Unless steps are taken to make sure local authorities have the means to properly enforce the new law, there is a risk that it won't deliver the improvements we're hoping for.”
The FSA said local authorities will take a range of approaches to assess compliance with food law. It said both proactive and reactive approaches were important aspects of a robust system of official controls.
FSA head of regulatory compliance Michael Jackson said: “Enforcing food law effectively is vital and often life-saving for those living with food allergies and intolerances.
“We recognise the essential role sampling plays in maintaining food standards along with inspections, intelligence and other evidence.
“This is an area that does need improvement and we are currently working with local authorities to enhance the delivery of food standards regulation to ensure food businesses are providing food that is safe and what it says it is.”