Allergen control in food has received a lot of media attention of late, with even small amounts of allergens potentially triggering allergic reactions and anaphylaxis resulting in death. Indeed only recently in November 2018 both the owner and manager at the Royal Spice Takeaway in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire were jailed for the manslaughter of a 15-year-old girl who suffered an allergic reaction to a meal.
It is therefore vital that food businesses take their duty of care seriously and understand the day-to-day allergen management systems and processes to be applied.
All food businesses must comply with the allergen information rules set in the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation and The Food Information for Consumers Regulation 2014 - to provide allergen information to the consumer, handle and manage food allergens adequately and train staff about allergens.
Provision of Allergen Information
It is a legal requirement for food business operators to provide information to customers if any of the foods or ingredients they supply contains any of the 14 prescribed allergens.
The 14 prescribed allergens:
12) Soya / Soy
14) Sulphur Dioxide
Where food is made directly for the customer (e.g. restaurants/pubs/cafes) this information needs to be provided via written information (e.g. on menu or board), or on request where customers must be signposted to ask for verbal or written information from staff.
Allergen information must be declared on the label if food is being sold on (i.e. you are not selling to the final consumer). Allergens in the list of ingredients should be distinctive, for example in bold or underlined.
If you supply to a third party (e.g. a takeaway delivery website) you need to provide them with the correct allergen information to give customers.
Customers may have different allergies other than the 14 listed which you also need to be able to manage, for example, mushrooms.
Beware! Do not overlook products simply because you assume they won’t contain an allergen, as they can be hidden in all sorts of ingredients. Always check if unsure, for example by referring to your allergen matrix or product specifications.
Although not currently a legal requirement, an allergen matrix is a commonly used useful aid to list which of the 14 major allergens are contained in a dish. It can then be referred to when a customer requests allergen information. If used, it is essential this is updated each time the menu, supplier or ingredients change. If you are supplied with prepared food products it is advisable to request allergen information from your supplier, which you should then check is accurate and have available for customers and employees.
Cross-contamination of allergens can occur during storage or preparation of food, including from contaminated equipment, crockery, hands, clothes or cleaning clothes. You can prevent this by:
Detailing how allergens are managed in your food safety management system and ensuring all staff understand allergen control and the procedures to follow.
Instructing all employees to check the ingredients of the raw products if in doubt.
Always using the most up to date allergen information from suppliers.
Checking the most up to date allergen documents are in use and that older versions are removed from site.
Never substituting ingredients in a food for alternatives (as they may contain allergens).
Ensuring there is good communication between the customer and staff when obtaining the allergen information. Do not guess and if you are not sure, check.
Handwashing at regular intervals, particularly after handling allergens and before handling a dish for someone with allergies.
Storing foods containing allergens in airtight containers with clear labels stating their content.
Covering foods containing allergens when they are out for service and positioning them so they do not fall into other foods.
Planning the work area to ensure there is no risk of cross-contamination when handling plates and ingredients, particularly around open saladette chill units.
Cleaning and disinfecting equipment and utensils after they have been used for products containing allergens, to remove residues.
Ensuring clothing is kept clean to prevent cross-contamination during food handling.
NB: some customers may not make you aware of their allergy. This could be because they believe that if the food is labelled as gluten-free on the menu, it has been handled and made accordingly.
Day-to-day Allergen Management Tips
Go through the allergen menu with the customer to select the appropriate product (you may wish to show the allergen matrix to the customer if you have one).
If you are not sure, read the order back to the customer to check the correct details are taken.
Spoons used for allergens (e.g. groundnuts, fish sauce, sesame) should not be used for other ingredients. Clean utensils should be used for allergen ingredients.
A clean and disinfected chopping board and knife etc should be used when preparing a dish for someone with an allergy. Also, chopping boards should be checked to be in a good condition and not heavily scored.
Store flour, breadcrumbs etc (containing gluten) in airtight, labelled containers preferably on the bottom shelf in storage to prevent contamination.
Ensure staff are using separate fryers for gluten-free and gluten-containing products. Label the equipment where appropriate.
You should be mindful that washing hands or equipment after contact with allergens may then contaminate the sink/taps, and you may then need to clean and disinfect the sink and other “touchpoints”.
Use separate colour coded equipment to prepare specific food items e.g. gluten-free foods.
All staff should be aware of their role in controlling allergens: from food handlers to front of house staff who need to provide accurate allergen information to customers. All employees should complete training on allergen awareness. They must be familiar with the Company Allergen Policy so that they are able to follow safety procedures.
Southalls Top Tip
If a customer tells you they have an allergy we recommend you check the dishes they are ordering do not contain the particular allergen. Importantly, we recommend you advise them that although the allergen is not an ingredient in the dish, the kitchen is not allergy-free it may still be present in the kitchen. This means the customer is provided with accurate information, so they can then make an informed decision about the food they consume.