OPINION: Three years on from allergen legislation, how are commercial kitchens coping?

San Jamar allergen kit

On 13th December 2014 the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation came into force, requiring food businesses to provide accurate information regarding the presence of 14 allergens in the foods they provide, including non pre-packed foods. Three years on from the introduction of this legislation, Fiona Sinclair, director of leading UK food safety consultancy STS, takes a look at what progress has been made, and what more still needs to be done:

Small businesses versus large corporations

Overall a huge amount of work has been carried out across the industry in terms of food businesses collating information on the allergens contained within their menus, and putting in place or refining systems for handling allergy enquiries. However, we have found some disparity between the processes large companies have in place to help them comply with the legislation and those of smaller, independent businesses.

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At STS we work with both large multi-site national corporations and small independent food businesses. Most medium and large organisations now often go above and beyond what is legally required when it comes to allergens and, in this very competitive industry, having customer-friendly allergen information has become a selling point for some. It’s increasingly common to see allergen information being presented in a very upfront customer friendly manner, for example allergy menus. Many companies feel strongly that building trust and confidence with customers when it comes to food allergies and intolerances is conducive to attracting customers and encouraging repeat business.

However, we often find that smaller businesses have been slower to comply with the legislation. Some are addressing the requirements well, however even now there is a significant proportion that are not complying or simply doing the bare minimum to make sure that allergen information is available for their consumers. Some even say that they are still unaware of their responsibilities, despite it having been law for three years now. This shows the importance of education from local EHOs who can sometimes be the only point of contact when it comes to compliance for small businesses.

Awareness

There has been a shift in terms of allergy awareness amongst the food industry workforce, which is fantastic. Prior to and immediately following the introduction of the regulations, there was a flurry of activity with food businesses training up their managers and raising allergy awareness amongst teams. Many companies have now incorporated allergen instruction into their induction process and e-learning training courses are commonly used. It’s vital that food handlers gain both an appreciation of the potential severity of food allergies and also a clear understanding of a company’s specific procedures for handling allergen enquiries.

The best comparison we can make to the progress of allergen awareness is the introduction of the requirement for food safety training in 1995; prior to that it was fair to say that a large percentage of the food industry workforce didn’t have food hygiene training but, over time, it has become the norm. We are very much still in the lag phase when it comes to allergen training and , as such, it’s very important that we don’t take our foot off the gas when it comes to deepening allergen knowledge across the industry.

Information

The food industry has risen to the challenge, by and large. One of the most significant challenges that operators have faced has been finding the time and resources to initially collate all their allergen information and get their systems set up. For large organisations it is a mammoth task to go through the enormous volume of menu information that needs to be analysed, but even smaller businesses have had to find the time on top of the everyday running of their business.

It’s common for food businesses to request allergen information for products from their suppliers and use that information to work from when collating theirs. Surprisingly, one of the common complaints we hear is that whilst some suppliers are forthcoming with the information others are not, adding to the challenge for caterers.

Fiona Sinclair says that most medium and large organisations now often go above and beyond what is legally required when it comes to allergens.

It’s an ongoing challenge to ensure accuracy – to provide accurate information, the information the customer is given needs to correspond exactly to the recipe that has been used to make a dish and, in turn, with incoming ingredients. The scope for human error is huge so it’s important to double or triple check all information. Many large organisations have invested in software systems capable of linking items purchased with recipes, which in turn automates the production of allergen information. This can be extremely helpful and software such as this is integral and essential in large, multi-site organisations, helping make the process of collating and keeping information up to date time efficient, and reducing the possibility of human error.

Many food businesses now have a policy not to accept substitutions at the point of delivery as this can alter the allergen information which is available at the point of sale or service. If substitute ingredients are accepted, then the business needs to ensure that they have a failsafe system in place to update any changes to the consumer allergen information.

Cracks in the provision of up to date allergen information quite commonly arise with the introduction of new products. Daily specials are sometimes introduced or new menus launched without the accompanying allergen information. Proactivity is key and having accurate allergen information should always go hand in hand with new product development. New dishes should only be launched once you have the correct allergen information available in order to avoid unnecessary risks.

Another aspect to safeguard against is recipe design and making sure that all chefs are preparing dishes to the same recipe. Basing recipes on loose verbal communication holds the potential for inaccuracies in the provision of allergen information. We would recommend that all businesses formalise and document their recipes, including specials, in order to avoid any confusion.

Many food businesses now have their menus and allergen information available on their websites. This should include websites where food can be ordered online as allergen information needs to be available to consumers at the point of sale, regardless of where this is. The extent of the legal requirement for the provision of allergen information must be a revelation for allergen sufferers, however some restaurants are concerned that having so much information available upfront makes it less likely that customers will make them aware of their food allergies. It’s important that customers communicate their allergy in order to help the restaurant ensure that all cross-contamination controls are taken during preparation of their food.

Outside the scope of the FIC regulations but nevertheless noteworthy, is that some food businesses are incorrectly using the term ‘gluten free’ on many of their menus. A food can only be termed gluten free if it contains 20 ppm or less of gluten; use of this and other terms is covered under separate legislation.

Communication

Even if a food business has systems in place to identify the allergenic ingredients contained within the dishes they serve, they are reliant on this being correctly communicated between staff and to the customer, especially at the busiest of times. When a customer with a food allergy places an order there should be a process to follow to make sure that they select an appropriate dish, the chefs are made aware to take necessary precautions when preparing the dish and the right dish goes to the right customer.

But how do you know that these procedures are failsafe during peak times when teams are flat out, and the temptation to cut corners to speed things up can kick in? Allergens need to take priority even when the team is most stretched – after all, cutting corners could lead to a fatal mistake.

There has been a shift in terms of allergy awareness amongst the food industry workforce, according to STS.

In order for systems to be consistently followed, they need to be as simple and straightforward as possible and clearly communicated to staff. We commonly find businesses adopting a ‘call the manager’ policy for allergy enquiries and safeguarding measures in place including written and verbal communication amongst front and back of house staff, and clearly identifying food which has been prepared for customers with food allergies on a specific type of plate or marking it with a label or flag.

Effective allergen training is making a difference and will make it more likely staff will follow procedures. If food handlers are educated on the seriousness of allergies then they are much more likely to take stock of and follow correct procedures even when it is challenging.

And finally…

We can’t do an article on allergen legislation without talking about enforcement. A recent high profile case that hit the headlines was a curry house that substituted almond flour for cheaper ground nut powder, which included peanuts, leading to the death of a customer. The incident happened committed before the new regulations came in but, nevertheless, the owner was jailed for manslaughter. Another case is pending where a girl died after eating a meal at a Manchester burger bar.

The penalties for failure to adhere to allergen legislation are high under criminal law and the number of prosecutions will no doubt make businesses think twice before cutting corners.

STS share the belief of many diligent food businesses, which is that it is the moral responsibility that every food business, manager, owner and food handler has that is key here – the realisation that allergies can be life threatening and just one small mistake could be fatal.

Continued education and training is vitally important, as well as continuously evolving and streamlining the systems which are already in place. The food industry has worked astonishingly hard over the last few years to make food safer for customers with allergies and, perhaps now that the legislation is three-years-old, this is a good time for food businesses to review and refresh their training and existing systems and take time to refine them to ensure they are second to none.

Fiona Sinclair is director of leading UK food safety consultancy STS. For more information visit www.sts-solutions.co.uk

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