Dr Hazel Gowland, consultant, researcher and trainer in food allergen management for Allergy Action looks at the current changing landscape of food allergy management within the foodservice sector.
In this article she looks at how important it is for those supplying, preparing and serving food to others keep their allergy knowledge up to date and be ready to respond to customer enquiries and implement effective policies, practices and procedures.
‘Prepacked for direct sale’ foods
“The tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse after consuming a baguette containing unlabelled sesame in July 2016 led to a review of foods ‘Prepacked for Direct Sale’. These are foods such as sandwiches, salads and soups, prepared on-site and packed in readiness for busy periods. At present they don’t have to carry ingredient or #14allergen labelling, so clear signs need to be in place to tell customers how to obtain allergen information from staff. This case and other ‘near misses’ have led to a consultation undertaken by DEFRA, together with the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland and the decision to implement Option 4 which will require full ingredients and allergen labelling on such foods, in the same way as for manufactured products. The outcome has resulted in ‘Natasha’s Law’, recently announced by the Government which will tighten the rules by requiring foods that are pre-packed directly for sale to carry a full list of ingredients. Its purpose is to ensure that consumers with food allergies, intolerances and coeliac disease can access the information they need.
We wait to see what the timetable will be to implement this, and also how well it will work in practice. There will be significant challenges for many food businesses to provide the required detail on written or printed labels, particularly on items for which there may be last-minute ingredient changes. It is possible that businesses may change their practice to remove some products from the scope – for example by piling up sandwiches unwrapped for the rush hour, and serving them directly to the consumer on request. This would not require the same detailed labelling on each item but will have the potential for confusing sandwiches and / or cross-contamination, both key allergen risks. It is vital that consumers with allergies and intolerances are able to access the information they need and that cross-contamination is recognised, controlled or communicated.
Allergen management is the responsibility of all staff
A waiter working in a well-known restaurant and takeaway chain was convicted of food law offences after a three-year-old boy suffered a life-threatening reaction to undeclared milk in pizza, in spite of his parents’ requests for special non-milk ‘cheese’ on his pizza. It is important that food businesses supervise the activities of their staff and ensure that they are adequately trained to provide the correct information and implement controls effectively. Regular reviews and spot checks need to be undertaken and training records kept up to date. Both staff and supervisors need to ensure that any allergen ‘near miss’ or incident is logged, lessons learned, changes implemented and policies and procedures updated.
Food business allergy risks
The very sad case of Amy May Shead who worked for ITV before suffering a life-changing reaction to nuts when on holiday abroad is a reminder that, although the vast majority of allergic reactions to food are mild and can be managed without emergency treatment, and a few (c 10-12 per annum) are fatal, we should remember that it is possible for a young adult to survive a severe reaction but suffer life-changing injury requiring life-long care. This has obvious implications for insurers in the food industry and particularly the catering sector.
Allergen management and the law
The use of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to prosecute businesses who may have failed to manage, control or communicate the presence of food allergens leading to an actual or potential risk to those consuming their food/products raises the stakes for food business operators. This is because of possible penalties and also because, unlike usual food offences, this law doesn’t ‘time out’, so could be used in cases (including fatal reactions) where an investigation takes more time. It is therefore even more important than ever that staff are trained to implement effective policies and procedures and that records are kept up to date, particularly for food ingredients and allergen information and also for staff training.
Which allergens are people avoiding?
Whilst many food allergic individuals in the UK are allergic to one or more of the #14allergens required in food labelling law, it is useful to understand which other food allergens are also avoided. Kiwi and bananas, and then various legumes including peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils are recorded by Anaphylaxis Campaign members, as well as a wide range of other fruits and vegetables. Symptoms vary but can sometimes become severe. Recent fatal cases involving young adults indicate that undeclared or unrecognised milk (eg in buttermilk chicken or yoghurt in doner kebab meat) is a major concern. Milk is also a common contaminant in many catering operations. The use of the word ‘dairy’ also causes confusion and many people don’t realise that ‘lactose-free’ products are not suitable for people with a milk allergy.
In recent months the food allergy community has reported a trend for businesses to require guests to sign some kind of disclaimer – a document indicating that they will not hold the business responsible if they have an allergic reaction. In some cases, this is on paper and in advance, and in others it is on an electronic device, sometimes once the person has sat down with their party to dine.
Whilst a food business is not obliged to sell food to anybody, they still have to have the #14allergens information available for all food held on-site. They also need to undertake a risk assessment and put controls in place for allergens, both as ingredients and as possible contaminants in other dishes or products. Staff need to be supervised and policies and procedures understood.
We don’t know whether such disclaimer notices carry any weight in court, but it is generally better to help the allergic/intolerant diner make a decision about whether to eat there well in advance and then discuss carefully what controls can or can’t be put in place on the day. Explaining any ‘may contain’ risk and whether it stems from the bought-in ingredient or is from on-site cross-contamination is also helpful.