Food Allergens – What you need to know
Posted by Karima Boyce – Health and Safety Adviser
As a child of the early 1990s, the idea of being allergic to a food was somewhat an alien concept. Of course, we were aware that there were a few unfortunate souls who couldn’t eat certain things but, for the most part, it was considered those professing food allergies were sensitive souls who needed (and I quote my father here) to, “get over it”.
This opinion is of course outdated and one that I do not subscribe to now. Food allergies are a serious concern and are more common and significant than recognised historically, so much so that we now have legislation in place to ensure those who suffer food allergies are provided with transparent information to enable an informed decision over what they are eating.
So what is a food allergy? The NHS define a food allergy as when the body’s immune system reacts unusually to specific foods. These reactions can be as simple and innocuous as a slight rash, the odd itch, or watery eyes however can be far more serious – vomiting or mild swelling of the mouth and throat that can present several hours after the foods have been consumed are common when a person is allergic to a specific food (as I am to shellfish, regrettably!). The most frightening and of course serious allergic response is known as anaphylaxis which can result in restricted airways and an inability to swallow or speak. Without urgent medical treatment, people can die as a result of ingesting foods to which they are allergic.
There have been several high-profile cases in the last few years, most notably the tragic case of 15 year old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died on a flight to Nice in 2016 having consumed a Pret a Manger baguette containing sesame, to which she was highly allergic. Despite the administration of an epi-pen and the best efforts of medical professionals and her father she died as a result of this allergy.
So, what do food business operators need to do to ensure they are providing customers with correct and accurate information on allergens in the foods being served? As a food business, it is imperative that you follow the rules as set out in EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC) – easy to say, less easy to read and digest! What do we need to DO..?
Put simply, we must:
It may seem a daunting task, however this checklist will help in making sure we are providing safe meals to those with food allergies.
Is it easy for customers to ask about allergen and dietary information? This could be as simple as a notice on the menu, behind the bar or on an online reservation form. Are your employees trained to ask customers if anyone suffers a food allergy when making reservations and taking orders?
A sign that can be displayed informing customers to speak to staff regarding the accommodation of allergens is available via the following URL:
Are your processes sufficient enough to provide a safe meal for someone with an allergy or intolerance to a food? Ask yourself if:
… we have accurate recipes for each dish that we serve, so there is a clear list of the ingredients we use in our meals? Chefs menu cards, again produced by the Food Standards Agency, can be downloaded from the link below. These are useful cards that can be deployed in kitchens and with waiting/serving staff that have been completed for each dish individually. They enable the accurate recording of the recipes so that all ingredients within each meal, whether fresh or bought in such as sauces, pickles, can be assessed for allergens.
… we provide allergen information in an accessible and upfront manner? An allergen matrix that has been produced by the Food Standards Agency can be downloaded via the following link. This can be completed and used to inform customers and staff on the allergens contained within each dish using the chefs menu cards:
… we label takeaway meals clearly, so our customers know which dish is which and which contain the allergens that we were told about?
… we know what our critical control points are within the kitchen and the storage of ingredients to prevent allergen cross-contamination:
REMEMBER – Cross contamination can happen through use of the same cooking oil! For example, chips which would ordinarily be gluten free may become contaminated with gluten if they are cooked in the same oil used to cook battered or breaded fish!
If you cannot guarantee a dish will not be free from a specific allergen this MUST be communicated to your customers. If you cannot ensure that the steps you are taking to ensure allergens do not make their way into dishes, it is better to communicate this than to take the risk.
What will happen if you cannot provide this information to your customers? As a part of the Local Authority food hygiene and safety inspections and the food hygiene rating a part of this will be consideration for how well you are managing allergies and keeping your customers with allergies and intolerances safe.
If you are unable to demonstrate that you are taking reasonable steps to show due diligence, you may be open to enforcement action against you. This will usually be in the form of a hygiene improvement notice that MUST be complied with. Not only is it imperative that consumers are kept safe by food business operators following the correct processes and procedures, but this will also form a part of the decision on the overall food hygiene rating awarded to your business. it must be remarked that a low food hygiene rating can damage reputation and revenue. Although seemingly complicated, using the steps listed above it is possible to create a comprehensive allergen procedure to ensure your customers are safe.
A final thought… We have come a long way since believing that food allergies were figments of the imagination, but the fact that it remains necessary to have such close enforcement of how we manage allergens and communicate this information to diners, suggests to me that we still have some way to go. However, if all food businesses were to approach this as if it were their loved ones who had a serious allergy that could kill them, then we would ensure higher standards for all.
There is a wealth of information and resources available to help food businesses and if you need further advice, we at Praxis42 are here to help. Contact us here.