THE BIG DEBATE: Let’s talk about allergen management in commercial kitchens

Chef in kitchen

With the government putting the microscope on food safety, the restaurant industry has been told it needs to do more than just the bare minimum when it comes to catering for the allergic community. FEJ finds out how commercial kitchens can equip themselves to stay on the right side of the law.

If allergens was a topic that operators thought they might be able to take lightly then all that changed last September when Pret A Manger found itself in every national newspaper after it emerged that a 15-year-old girl had tragically died after eating a baguette that she did not realise contained sesame.

Following a high-profile inquest, Pret A Manager announced that full ingredient labelling would be introduced to all products freshly made in its shop kitchens, while last month environment secretary Michael Gove unveiled proposals to overhaul allergen labelling laws and give consumers clearer information on the food they buy.

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Under current rules, food prepared on the premise in which it is sold is not required to display allergen information on the package — but the proposed rules could go as far as seeing full labelling required by law.

The government is now seeking information on four possible options, which include mandating full ingredient list labelling; mandating allergen-only labelling on food packaging; mandating ‘ask the staff’ labels on all products, with supporting information for consumers available in writing; and promoting best practice around communicating allergen information to consumers.

The latter proposition is by far and away the most practical solution as far as the industry’s largest trade body UK Hospitality is concerned. Chief executive, Kate Nicholls, is convinced that open dialogue would deliver a far more effective outcome than mandatory labelling.

“There is too great a risk of incorrect labelling and the system would not safeguard against accidental contamination,” she argues. “Additionally, smaller businesses would likely be overwhelmed by any mandatory requirements to label all their food, increasing the possibility of an error. The best way to increase transparency and safety is to continue to promote and share best practice to encourage open conversations about food allergens.”

It is a view that seems to be shared by a growing number of suppliers with equipment and solutions designed to assist the allergen management process.

Tim Gamble, executive chairman at safety and policy compliance specialist Monika, says that having allergen information in an easily accessible, simple-to-use format can reduce the risk of mislabelling in busy kitchens that the consultation document repeatedly refers to.

“A mobile application, for example, could ensure that information is available instantly when a member of staff is in dialogue with a customer. It could also include strict control of permissions and sign-off to update allergen information, and regular prompts on an automatic task list to get in touch with suppliers and check for allergen updates. These would give operators and their customers added peace of mind, and help keep the business compliant with legislation.

“It’s so easy for things to slip when robust systems aren’t in place — and paper is notoriously open to error and abuse,” he adds.

According to research conducted by the Food Standards Agency, around two million people in the UK have food allergies. More recent data collected suggests that a significant number of young people with food allergies fear eating out in pubs and restaurants.

Ben Gardner, CEO of digital food safety expert Navitas Group, says its advice to operators on all food safety aspects is always to take a proactive approach to stay ahead of the law. This especially applies to allergens: “It’s simply not an area operators can bury their heads in the sand about.”

He suggests there are some questions that all foodservice businesses need to ask themselves when reviewing how they currently manage allergens in their business.

“Are your staff aware of the 14 main food allergens? Do you have a system in place so you monitor and record the ingredients in every dish? Does every member of staff know how this system works? Our food safety and allergen labelling technology is designed to keep customers one step ahead of compliant — very much on the right side of the law. The alternative for a food business and its customers could be catastrophic,” he warns.

It’s simply not an area operators can bury their heads in the sand about”

Luke Carman, sales manager for the UK and Ireland at food storage equipment provider Cambro, which recently brought out a new line of allergen-free storage containers with distinctive purple lids and markings, believes that allergen management is especially a problem in smaller kitchens that are not able to accommodate separate storage and preparation areas or that have limited training and resources.

“Shared equipment, improper food labelling, inadequate ventilation, shared utensils, aprons, self-serve stations, cooking oils/fryers and poor sanitation of preparation areas are the major causes of cross-contact. Training is essential and the careful selection of suppliers and the use of equipment designed to prevent cross-contamination, such as colour coded storage boxes, will help manage allergens,” he comments.

Carman notes that even a trace from a ladle or spoon that was used to pour peanut sauce then simply wiped off and used for a different sauce could cause a reaction in a person who has a peanut allergy.

“Cooking does not eliminate the chances of a person having a reaction. For operators that have size-limited kitchens, preparing allergen-free meals involves careful planning and prepping these items on specific days or hours, using specifically designated equipment.”

The government’s proposed reforms cover labelling requirements for foods that are packed on the same premises from which they are sold, such as a packaged sandwich or salad made by staff earlier in the day and placed on a shelf for purchase.

Currently, these foods are not required to carry labels, and information on allergens can be given in person by the food business if asked by the consumer.

Chris Hassall, director of compliance and risk management services at Checkit, points out that the consultation only actually relates to a small proportion of the food industry and suggests that, for the vast majority of food operators, legal requirements are likely to remain the same for the foreseeable future.

He believes customer expectations, rather than legislation, is likely to be the biggest driver of change.

“Recent media coverage has highlighted a difference between the minimum legal standard and expectations of the public. Businesses that not only look to meet the minimum legal standard — but genuinely cater for and accommodate guests with allergies are likely to be the ones that benefit from the increased public focus on allergens.”

Management of allergen information is certain to evolve, regardless of which option out for consultation is implemented, agrees Gamble at Monika.

He says that having a robust system in place with as many checks and sign-offs as possible will go a long way to avoiding the issues busy kitchens face due to changes in staff or ingredients.

“Best practice would be a paperless application that encourages not only effective management of allergens in the food served but prompts the users to be proactive, for example by checking Food Standards Agency updates regularly to ensure they remain compliant.”

At present, restaurant and takeaway businesses can choose how they give information on allergens to customers — either through questioning staff directly, the labelling of buffets or indicating ingredients on menus and boards.

Navitas Group’s Ben Gardner says his company’s view is also that with increased pressure from consumers, legislation will inevitably become tighter.

“For us, best practice is staying one step above compliant. That would mean ensuring all staff involved in preparing, serving and selling food have undergone allergy awareness training — and that this training is regularly repeated — and incorporating allergen labelling into their existing food safety management systems to tackle this issue head on.”

It’s so easy for things to slip when robust systems aren’t in place — and paper is notoriously open to error and abuse”

Having clear, practical procedures for team members when dealing with allergy queries and guiding them through the process and directing them to the current allergy information is ultimately what every foodservice operator should be aiming for, suggests Hassall at Checkit.

“Food operators need to liaise with suppliers to ensure that allergy information is compiled. This can be an intensive process — but once this process is complete it is important not to over-complicate the process. Keep it practical and understandable by all team members,” he counsels.

Choice, trust and availability have undoubtedly improved for people with food allergies in recent years, but there is still more work to be done. Irrespective of what the government’s consultations turn into, there are enough solutions out there in the market to ensure foodservice operators can manage allergens safely, confidently and effectively.

The 14 main allergens

Food businesses are required to inform customers if any food products they sell or provide contain any of the main 14 allergens as an ingredient. These are:

– Celery
– Cereals containing gluten
– Crustaceans
– Eggs
– Fish
– Lupin
– Milk
– Molluscs
– Mustard
– Tree nuts
– Peanuts
– Sesame seeds
– Soybeans
– Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million)

Top tips: Avoiding cross-contamination

Foodservice Equipment Marketing is the UK supplier of the Allergen Saf-T-Zone System from San Jamar, which can be used as a portable safe prep area to ensure there is always a dedicated range of allergen-free equipment clean and ready to use whenever required. Here are its three top tips to avoid cross-contamination.

• Training: Ensure that all staff are trained in good kitchen practice and understand specific dietary requirements including food allergens and how to prevent cross-contamination.

• Safe storage: Use food storage boxes that are designated for allergen-free ingredients and are easily differentiated from other containers in the kitchen. Designated food storage boxes need to have sturdy inner and outer seals to help keep ingredients safe from cross-contamination, even during transportation.

• Wrapping and labelling: Wrap raw or cooked food and label it accurately before storage. This is a necessary part of food safety and hygiene practice in commercial kitchens. An all-in-one wrapping and labelling system will prevent cross-contamination and ensure safe food storage.

Product spotlight

– Monika

Monika has developed a comprehensive allergen check as part of its MonikaPrime and MonikaGo paperless food safety applications. The function can be used to find out exactly what allergens are in a particular dish, as well as which menu items to avoid if a customer has a specific allergy.

The feature makes it easier for staff to provide vital information on allergens to customers and can be set up to include prompts to the operator to check with suppliers for changes to ingredients, giving them a helpful tool to stay in control
of the issue.

– Navitas

Navitas’ Digital Food Safety Management system is fully integrated with a mobile label printer to give food businesses a cost-effective and compliant allergy labelling platform. Users can not only monitor appliance and food temperatures but also record them, along with ingredients, allergens and use-by dates.

Kitchen staff can then print out tailored labels with specific information on the allergens present, together with the date and time the food item was prepared. The software keeps a record of all label information and the details of the employee who produced it, along with a time stamp ensuring transparency and accountability.

– Checkit

Checkit provides all round support for businesses to deliver on their compliance commitments, from policy design to implementation to monitoring and support when it is needed. Its systems can provide a clear overview of current due diligence completion along with an action plan on how to move completion of due diligence forwards.

Its helpline service provides customers with access to expert food safety and health and safety support to guidethem through a range of issues they may encounter – from dealing with accidents, responding to allegations of food poisoning or reacting to a local authority food safety inspection. Any actions resulting from check-ups, audits or issues will be logged in Checkit’s portal and actions can be tracked through to completion.

Tags : AllergensCheckitFEMfood allergensfood safetyMonikaNavitas Group
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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