The first Allergens Summit gathered advice from all over the industry, from restaurateurs to medical professionals, to discover how businesses can tackle the dangers of allergens, through writing menus and training staff. Janie Stamford reports
"I've been involved in food allergy practice and research for about 20 years, during which time the landscape has changed considerably," said consultant paediatric allergist Dr Robert Boyle, who opened The Caterer Allergens Summit.
He outlined data behind a series of studies that suggest that the number of people going to hospital with severe allergic reactions has been increasing since the early 1990s. It's a trend that is paralleled in the number of prescriptions for anaphylaxis treatments, such as Epipens, which has increased from around 100,000 per year 15 years ago to approaching 350,000 a year.
A similar pattern is being seen across the Western world, he said, "but that doesn't necessarily mean there's an epidemic".
While hospital admissions were increasing by 4% to 5% year-on-year, particularly for people aged 14 and under, the number of fatalities remains largely unchanged. This is a pattern that is typically seen with over-diagnosis as a result of increased awareness, said Dr Boyle, who hypothesised that the food allergy epidemic is partly manmade.
He went on to outline what it means to have food allergies, for both affected individuals and caterers. For individuals, there are three main areas that are affected: "There's a significant emotional burden that can accompany food allergy. A lot of that is about control and not being taken seriously," he said. "Then there's not being able to eat what you want.
This has improved a lot in recent years, but if you've got a milk or wheat allergy, it's a nightmare.
"And – particularly for teenagers and children – there's a feeling of exclusion and not being able to take part in group activities. Our patients tell us they want an environment in which they can feel calm."
In a way, he added, this represents a marketing opportunity for hospitality operators who can successfully create an environment that makes people with food allergies feel comfortable and confident in the safety of the food and drink offer.
A three-pronged approach
When it comes to allergen protocols, there are three main areas of focus that are all as important as each other, as Jamie Cartwright, partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys, explained: "Fail one and you undermine the rest."
The ordering process – or customer interface – has perhaps received the most media attention in the context of allergens. While Cartwright described this as understandable, he warned that it could create a perception that solving this one part of the problem will eliminate the risk of allergens.
"The way I see it, the ordering process is the tip of the iceberg and, quite frankly, the dangers lie underneath," he said. He added that menu labelling has no chance of being effective if an operator has inadequate kitchen processes or no control over the supply chain.
Making a declaration of zero crosscontamination in the kitchen would be very difficult from a legal standpoint, but there are ways that operators can work to significantly reduce the risk. One is by revisiting menus and looking at where allergen materials can be stripped out.
"Can soup be made without celery as a base ingredient and still taste good, for example," he said. "Essentially, it's a question of why put yourself in a position where allergens could be an issue?"
Supply chain management was described as the hardest issue to tackle because food and drink businesses are reliant on the information given to them by third parties.
"It's taken suppliers a bit longer to get on board with the allergen risks in the same way that operators have," said Cartwright, who suggested that technology could be used to help.
"If you use technology in your purchasing process that requires allergen declarations,this system can be enabled to cascade into your own menus and allergen matrices."
Engaging your teams and menu development
What are operators doing to ensure their teams are allergen aware? And are they developing menus with allergens in mind? These questions were put to an expert panel by James Stagg, deputy editor of The Caterer.
"It's all about the quality and reliability of our allergen data, starting with the suppliers and manufacturers, through our processes and to the final customer. About 12 months ago we undertook a farm to fork review of our food supply chain and we identified 23 weaknesses that we addressed. We're also trying to educate frontline staff and particularly the chefs in our business around allergen management.
So while we do have a complex offer, we are trying very hard to manage it, particularly to control allergens."
Chris Moore, food safety director, Compass Group UK & Ireland
"We get around 40 allergen enquiries a week, so we try and communicate proactively in advance with a fully allergen-identified menu on our website. And when you sign up to our WiFi, the specials will appear with all allergen information available. Prompts are a massive thing for us, so when customers place an order, my guys can't press a button without asking about allergens. On the ticket, allergies are printed in red because our chefs were getting confused when it was in the same colour. It's about using creativity."
Tim Foster, founder, Yummy Pubs
"A few years ago we noticed a spike in people [with food intolerances/allergies] coming in and we were being driven mad with all the curveballs. We make everything in-house and it was becoming a nightmare. So I shouted at the restaurant manager that we might as well make the whole of the Indigo restaurant gluten and dairy free and I realised that actually, it wasn't a bad idea because there's a gap in the market for it. We get many a big table come in where there's one person in the party who is gluten free."
Dominic Teague, executive chef, One Aldwych
Using systems to deal with allergen risk
"Nearly three-quarters of UK hospitality employees feel they need more information about allergens," said Stewart Maranello, senior solution consultant at software provider Fourth, which conducted the survey.
"And nearly a quarter of those aren't confident when it comes to interacting with customers that have serious allergies. That's your frontline staff."
In addition, nearly three-quarters of hospitality business leaders said that allergy procedures and staff training is one of the biggest focuses in their operation at the moment.
The Food Information Regulations (FIR) were introduced in 2014, which Maranello said most operators probably imagined would have become a relatively easy part of their businesses by now.
"But it continues to become further compounded, with further regulations and reviews and obviously the forthcoming Natasha's Law being the biggest example of that," he said.
"Some businesses clearly have some great systems in place [to deal with allergen regulations], but there's still a huge number out there that are still trying to use paper and spreadsheets to manage this process, and it's just not robust enough any more."
Even once businesses have got the systems in place, there remains the challenge of ensuring all staff are appropriately trained to be confident enough to discuss how a menu can be adjusted to suit a guest's needs. So how can technology be used to help ensure servers have allergen information at their fingertips?
"Allergens aren't going anywhere. And tech is a huge part of most businesses these days but the only ones that use it successfully are the ones that have solid training, proper processes and standards to go with it," said Maranello. "If you don't have all of that, it simply doesn't work."
How to create an allergen-aware culture
Julian Edwards, director of Allergen Accreditation, shared his tops tips for training and creating an allergen-aware culture.
1 Everyone in the business must undergo allergen training, not just frontline staff and food handlers.
2 Allergen training must be treated like health and safety training – everyone must complete it and everyone must undergo regular refresher courses.
3 Make sure allergen training uses the industry best practice standards.
4 Allergies affect people of all ages, so it's important to recognise that 18- to 24-year-old customers are some of the most at risk. This is because they've just left home and are taking full responsibility for managing their allergies for the first time.
5 Tailor your training workshops to your type of operation to best empower your staff.
6 If you use an external organisation for your allergen training, make sure it provides accredited training that is up to date with the latest legislation and best practice guidelines.
7 Technology can be effective in supporting your allergen culture but it's only as effective as the quality of the data.
8 The vast majority of your operation's solution when it comes to allergen management comes from wellempowered, cultivated staff who care about the customers and their employers.
9 Don't wait for new legislation to start building in new ways to communicate allergens to your customers – think labelling for any pre-packed foods.
10 Instead of phrases like "we can't guarantee" when it comes to allergen safety, your business should be confidently saying: "allergens and intolerances – we've got this covered – please ask us about our ingredients and processes".
Young people and food allergies and intolerances
"In May 2019, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Board committed to making allergens one of its key priorities and has now established an FSA-wide programme to support the commitment," said Michael Wright, deputy director and head of food safety policy at the FSA, who outlined the work being carried out around allergens.
The programme will be delivered in three areas: safety – understanding food hypersensitivity and associated risks; trust – confidence to take appropriate action; and choice – making sure that people with food hypersensitivity are not unnecessarily excluded from food culture, such as eating out or ordering a takeaway.
Wright outlined another new FSA plan, a pilot project to collect data that will enable the organisation to better understand the prevalence of allergic reactions, as well as what people are reacting to and where. To do this, the FSA has contracted an external company to work on the discovery phase of the project.
Following the FSA's #easytoask campaign in 2019, which was aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds because of their increased vulnerability when eating out, Wright said a new awareness campaign will be launched this year to remind businesses how to keep people with food allergies safe and to remind consumers of their right to allergen information when eating out.
"The initial focus will be on owners and managers of food businesses," he said. "Then we'll be looking at how we communicate messages to front of house staff, who have given us some interesting feedback. And we'll have another campaign specifically aimed at young people over the summer.
"The objective is to increase food businesses' knowledge of food allergens and to normalise the asking of questions, as we are often told by customers that they are made to feel really different when they walk into a restaurant."
Supply chain safety
Food suppliers are legally obliged to provide their customers with full lists of ingredients that emphasise any allergens where relevant. But as Samantha Elliott, nutritionist at wholesaler Bidfood, explained, the delivery method for this information has undergone its own evolution.
"As we move into a more digital age and as the need for allergen information to be more readily available upon request is so much greater than even five years ago, it is unfeasible for food operators to purchase, manage and communicate this without having the information electronically."
That's why, she said, Bidfood has implemented robust systems and high standards to achieve data accuracy as well as effective communication mechanisms to inform customers of any changes in allergen informationin both own-brand and branded products.
It begins with how Bidfood gathers what it has marked as mandatory information from its own suppliers. In addition to a full ingredients declaration, the company requires additional declaration fields for each of the 14 allergens.
"Managing this information is no easy feat," said Elliott. "When new products are listed into the business we collect more than 100 attributes and then we validate them against more than 250 different rules relating to allergen information."
After this, physical label checks are conducted to ensure that they match the information submitted digitally. Only then will a new product be listed.
"Manufacturers can update us any time with changes to product data, but we go further than that to maintain data accuracy," she added. "Annually we extract information from more than 9,000 branded products and we ask the suppliers to review, check and resubmit that information. This is part of an initiative we call Project Verified."
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