Despite the introduction of tight allergen regulations in December 2014, many caterers have taken some steps to address their legal obligations, but not grasped exactly what the law expects of them.
There is an over-reliance on the customer being the ‘prompt’ for the delivery of allergen information in many catering scenarios. When this happens, the response is often, “I don’t know”, or “well, it could contain nuts”. For the last part of this sentence, you can substitute any of the other 13 allergens caterers need to declare - gluten wheat, peanuts, soya, molluscs, sesame, crustaceans, celery, lupin, eggs, lactose, sulphur dioxide, fish and mustard.
Whichever of these used in a ‘don’t know’ or ‘it could contain’ sentence is immaterial, as both phrases contravene the law. Whether you are a small café, sandwich shop, educaterer or pub chain, the law – and the Environmental Health Officer - expects you to know. You must also provide your oral guidance on allergens in writing, if the customer requests this. Regardless of whether you are serving packaged, or unwrapped food, you must comply.
There are good reasons for the allergen regulations. 21 million UK adults suffer at least one allergy, whilst 6-8% of children are affected. There is a 5% increase each year and, annually, over 20,000 people are admitted to hospital with allergic reactions. Over 60% are emergency cases; around 10 people a year die.
Making allergen information available is just one part of a caterer’s legal duty. Any allergen information on pre-packed foods must be provided in a consistent format, with this, and other mandatory information, printed in a minimum font size. Meat packaging, for fresh, chilled and frozen meat from sheep, pigs, goats and poultry, must also state the country of origin.
Whilst caterers are getting their houses in order with allergen information, they also need to be aware of further legal requirements arriving on December 13 2016. After that, nutrition labelling will also be mandatory for the majority of those offering pre-packed food.
Nutrition labelling has to declare the energy value of food, in both kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal) per 100g/ml and the amounts, in grams (g), of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt, in that order. It is then a voluntary decision whether to include details of other nutrients.
Those providing food indirectly, perhaps via the Internet or a mail order catalogue, need to update their websites to ensure this information is delivered within product description, prior to purchase.
There are further regulations. For instance, drinks with high caffeine content should be labelled ‘unsuitable’ for children and pregnant and breastfeeding women, and state the caffeine content.
It can be problematic for a caterer to work through all regulations alone given the nature of the busy catering industry. This is why our catering clients find informed health and safety consultancy such an asset. A consultant will typically visit your premises, examine how you prepare and stock food and make a holistic review of your cleaning practices and cross-contamination prevention procedures. They will also analyse your labelling and explore how allergen and nutritional information is delivered to customers.
Whilst on site, they can also carry out health and safety and fire risk assessments, provide template forms for record keeping and ensure you have concrete evidence of your food safety procedures, should an alleged food poisoning claim be made.
Resulting recommendations should highlight how to respond if things go wrong. Product recalls, due to incorrect allergen information, have involved big names like Asda (Extra Special Chocolate and Beetroot Cake which contained walnuts), the Nut House (Tasty Bake Brand Cakes containing undeclared milk) and Asda and Tesco’s Builder Brands bread products (seed mix containing undeclared sesame seeds).
A caterer always needs to focus on their industry’s dynamics and how this could lead to non-compliance and a heavy fine. With the reported “dire shortage” of chefs, and many restaurants struggling to fill permanent positions involving 70-80 hour working weeks, agency chefs are becoming the norm. If a chef alters the standard recipe in any way, a dish could suddenly acquire new allergen constituents.
And in a world where the interface with the customer is typically not the chef, but a part-time member of staff, or a student earning extra cash, the need for robust health and safety training, and a manual of procedures, is paramount. Literally everyone needs to sing from the same allergen hymn sheet, if a caterer is to stay