Nearly three years after the introduction of the allergen legislation, The Caterer brought together a round table of industry movers and shakers at Fortnum & Mason in London to discuss how easily and effectively it has been adopted. Rosalind Mullen reports
How much of a challenge has it been to implement the legislation?
Lisa Ackerley (LA): The most important thing is to engage with customers about allergens, and it is engagement that we still need to work on. One thing reported to me through members of the British Hospitality Association (BHA) is that diners increasingly expect the restaurant to somehow know what they are allergic to. So there has been an increase of incidents because of this.
Restaurants need to work with the customer to engage immediately. On ordering, every guest should be asked about allergies so there is a dialogue straight away, rather than expecting a guest to read the small print at the bottom of the menu, which gets lost. It is about putting it up front.
Paul Dickinson (PD): We did a huge overhaul of our staff training and we ask diners if there are any allergens we should be aware of. But the Food Standards Agency (FSA) forgets the consumer and puts pressure on us to manage it. My challenge to the FSA is how do we encapsulate the nation to make sure everyone is on the same playing field?
LA: Ten people die a year from an allergic reaction to food. In defence of the FSA, they have given the BHA advance notice on health campaigns, for instance on undercooked burgers. So we have a little bit of preparation.
PD: There are grey areas and we need clarity on them, such as gluten-free. The third parties that we use are doing their best to support business. As a customer, you come in and want something gluten-free and we need guidance that is fit for purpose. Information is critical. We invite presentations from the Anaphylactic Campaign, and one lady who is allergic to nuts has addressed 5,000 members of our staff in our pubs and told them her own story – and now staff are owning it. The Anaphylactic Campaign is doing more to convey the message to the consumer than the FSA.
Sonya Crutchley: For us, going back to 14 December 2014, it was difficult because we were trying to deliver the legislation but the guidance wasn’t published until October. As a big business, we needed to start working on it, but we had to do the breakdowns at the last minute. We need guidance up front [on new legislation] and the time to deliver it.
Does the BHA give feedback to the FSA from businesses?
LA: I go to meetings at the FSA on behalf of the BHA and we also invite them to our food expert groups. We can feed back information and collect information. We try to put members’ opinions across.
Hoteliers and restaurateurs sent out a letter in early 2015 worried the legislation was harming innovation, spontaneity and creativity. Has that proved to be the case?
Sid Clark (SC): You need a balance. Consumer safety is paramount. But at Texture, which is a fine-dining restaurant in our group, we have been conscious of not taking the romance away. If you are given a menu with a list of allergens at the bottom, it affects how the menu is presented. It comes back to training [for the staff to ask the customer]. That is key.
The next issue will be around burgers. The FSA is pushing for the need to have printed on menus that ‘Undercooked burgers can lead to serious illness or death’. OK, I am taking it to the extreme, but you see my point. If you do that, 99% of diners would be wondering what you are doing in your restaurant. It is about operators finding a balance.
PD: I wonder if the individuals enforcing legislation understand food? You have got to have people at the FSA who experience all types of restaurant. There is a disconnect between enforcing legislation and making it compliant in a way that people support. We have worked with everyone and enforced change, but we have done it of our own accord because the guidance has been loose.
LA: I get feedback from the FSA that they want to keep it loose, but I go back to them and say caterers need guidance because some Environmental Health Officers around the country will enforce things in different ways.
So, the legislation has been onerous to implement?
Nick Smith (NS): I take an opposing view. When this [legislation] first came out, having to provide data to customers was a positive thing. We felt we didn’t need any support. As a company, we identify more allergens than the FSA. We built a system that was simple, made it interactive and the suppliers complied. I am not sure how much more information [the FSA] needed to give us. Maintaining that data is a challenge, but there is no real difference than with pricing. I think we can overthink these things. We implemented it in three months and it’s maintained automatically. I find it very easy.
Phil Hirst (PH): But some customers tell the server they have an allergy, yet they might still be served dishes with those ingredients. That is where it becomes an issue. It’s OK having it in the system – and clearly the legislation doesn’t cover all of the allergens, which is part of the issue – but it is important to make sure the people on the front line know what is in the products they are serving.
PD: The law states that all you need to do is identify whether that allergen is in the product. It is then the customer’s choice. People with severe allergies are very thorough, but there are others who are blasé.
LA: You need the whole package. You need the customers to be educated.
How do you make sure staff understand the regulations and their role in communicating that to customers?
Oisín Rogers (OR): It is about training and systems. There is a lot of training in lace to ensure staff have information on allergens in ingredients and are able to communicate that with customers.
LA: It is important that people don’t just fixate on the 14 listed allergens. There was an incident I heard about the other day whereby a guest rang to say they had an intolerance to pine nuts. They ordered their meal and again said they were allergic to pine nuts. But they were served soup with a pesto swirl in it. They tasted it and started to get an anaphylactic shock. Fortunately, they had an Epipen, but the chefs’ response was, ‘it’s not one of the allergens, so it doesn’t matter’. That is an offence. We forget there is legislation that states you do not give people food they said they didn’t want. Training should not just be fixated on the 14 allergens.
SC: There has been a big shift in understanding, so when you do start the training about allergens, it is now familiar to staff.
LA: It’s nice to be asked if you have an allergy, as part of service. For example, the other day in a coffee shop, my husband was given the wrong coffee with soya milk in it, so it tasted strange to him. But what about the other person
who was perhaps allergic to dairy? It may have been catastrophic. How do you make sure that the food lovingly prepared with the right information goes to the right customer?
Are there any allergens that are difficult to keep track of through the supply chain? How realistic is it to go all the way back?
San Tickle (ST): We are a manufacturer and it is a big challenge. We get a lot of questions, right down to whether the corn that is fed to a chicken is genetically modified, and we can follow it up on our system. Traceability goes a long way now – to the feed and the soil. We can’t ask our suppliers about some traces because some things are beyond traceable. One customer wanted non-dairy from a dairy product. It’s impossible. There is a limit.
LA: There is confusion with lactose and dairy. It’s dangerous.
ST: We supply a lot for the non-dairy market. In Sweden, we have a high- technology laboratory to be 100% sure. Our non-dairy partners have a lot of questions, and this will get stronger.
How do you manage a change in ingredients and therefore a potential change in the allergen risk? What measures are in place to make sure you aren’t caught out?
Janice Rockwell (JR): We carry out due diligence across the supply chain. It needs to be continually audited and monitored, and the responsibility put back on suppliers to ensure that they are following protocol regarding cross-contamination. There is always a risk with ingredient changes, especially where people are looking to cost-cut or re-source ingredients. There is a trust element that we are working with the right suppliers and have complete auditing of the supply chain. It goes across other areas of legislation, too, such as modern-day slavery. There is a duty for us to know who is making the product, where it is sourced from and how it is manufactured. The challenges are when you have multiple suppliers across multiple countries.
LA: Small businesses are particularly exposed to changes in ingredients. For example, a B&B may buy sausages regularly from a supermarket, but the supermarket may change the ingredients. The only requirement in a retailer is for food to be labelled properly, so the customer needs to check the labels. There is a different relationship between supplier and operator in that circumstance – the onus is on small companies to keep checking labels to ensure an allergen has not been added.
Pesto, for example, is a scary product. Pine nuts are expensive and with the fluctuation in costs, they can be replaced by cashew nuts or walnuts and so on, changing what should be a nut-free sauce. You need to raise awareness of what is being substituted.
Similarly, a regular customer may have told you on one visit that they are allergic to something and you serve them an appropriate dish. But if you change the ingredients, the next time they visit they may not tell you again that they are allergic and simply order that dish because they feel comfortable eating it. This is also a problem in schools or universities or clubs, too. If things change, there is a potential problem.
PD: The only challenge we endure is when we go from one supplier to another. We make it personal with our suppliers. They need to own the product. You need to buy what represents the quality and values of your business. You need to ensure compliance happens.
A survey recently claimed that two-thirds of consumers wanted more nutritional information on their menus and more menu transparency beyond listing those 14 allergens. Is this positive?
SC: We have that information readily available if guests ask for it. It goes back to having a balance and of not giving people any unnecessary information.
PD: If we create a new sausage, we send it off to the lab for our own due diligence, so we know we can say ‘there are no nuts in this’. That is for us. But if someone asks, we can share the information. At pub level or restaurant level, people want to sit and have a beer or a glass of wine. I don’t want to ruin that with information overkill.
LA: If you put too much information on the menu, it is confusing and can be dangerous if you haven’t listed an allergen that is not one of the 14.
PD: It is dangerous, so you should list the ingredients. For instance, we would say that it is ‘walnut pesto’. Every quarter, we audit internally. If we have had allergen near-misses, we review the customer experience. Our staff are now trained regarding coeliacs, so they understand what it is and can manage enquiries.
NS: We don’t just think about allergens. We collect 350 pieces of information regarding every ingredient. [The system] is always live, tracking allergens, modern slavery and so on.
What happens when a diner tells you, as an operator, that they have an allergy and then go on to make a decision to order that dish?
SC: If you explain there is an allergen and they choose to go ahead, you have to respect that.
OR: It happens a lot with dairy- and gluten-free foods. We need to give customers the information but we can’t refuse to serve it to them.
LA: In terms of due diligence, you need to write it down to protect yourself.
NS: We have handheld [ordering units with prompts] and so you can put an action in that you “advised the customer”. It is logged in the system before the food order goes to the kitchen. You can also inform the general manager. Those processes enable you to carry on the experience.
LA: The other issue is that customers often share dishes.
Given Brexit and that this is an EU legislation, are you happy with it or would you like to see it dropped?
OR: The FSA translates the EU laws and it works well.
LA: Our Food Safety Act is not EU legislation. We have had it for a long time. Also, one of the critical thing about allergen control is that people must have the food they have demanded. And that legislation has been there for 100 years, I think.
The law on allergies
In the UK, food allergies affect about 8% of children and 2% of adults. In December 2014, the law on how allergen information is provided by
food businesses changed to help people with an allergy or intolerance when buying food or eating out.
The foodservice industry has to identify dishes containing 14 specified allergens used as ingredients for food or drink sold without packaging or wrapped on site.
It can be provided either in writing (on a menu) or orally by a member of staff.
Where the specific allergen information is not provided upfront, there must be clear signposting as to where this information can be obtained.
For more information, go to: www.food.gov.uk
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