New allergen labelling laws are just around the corner but the industry is far from ready. Our allergen checklist breaks down what food businesses need to know into 10 easy steps. By Elly Earls
The Food Information for Consumers Regulation 2014 mandates that businesses must be able to communicate which dishes contain any of 14 specified allergens, including shellfish, soya beans, milk and celery, either through accurate written information provided to customers, for example on the menu or a noticeboard, or by signposting clear instructions explaining how they can obtain that information from staff.
It's more complicated than it sounds. Not only has guidance from regulators and local authorities been slow to materialise and confusing when it has, meaning many operators, particularly small ones, are either unaware of the new developments or unsure how to implement them; it's far from easy to accurately identify, record and communicate the use of allergens in dishes even when operators are fully aware of the new rules.
But, with a bit of care, a lot of communication and plenty of training, both ahead of the deadline and continuing after it's been and gone, there's no reason it can't be done - as we show you with our simple checklist.
1 UNDERSTAND THE WHY
The new regulations haven't been brought in just to add another bureaucratic burden to food businesses; they're being implemented to help the growing number of people who live in fear of eating out because of the severe allergic reactions they have to certain foods. Currently, around 10 people in the UK die from allergic reactions to food every year.
For Liz Allan, founder of training provider Allergy Aware Kitchen, who also has coeliac disease, the background to the legislation is something that can be all too easily forgotten.
"Food businesses often fail to consider the reason why the regulations are being enforced in the first place," she says. "It's in order to prevent allergic guests having a reaction when eating out, not just about making them provide allergen information.
"People can research and understand allergens as much as they want, but the staff have also got to understand the differences between food allergy, food intolerance, coeliac disease and anaphylaxis, and that the people who are coming in just want to have a safe meal."
2 CONTACT YOUR SUPPLY CHAIN
Caterers need to work with their supply chain to ensure they have the most upto- date information for the ingredients in all of their products via the manufacturer's specification sheets. Of course, in some cases, this will be easier said than done.
"Your smaller suppliers (the farm-to-table or local providers) may not be aware of these obligations," says David Loewi, MD of D&D London and chairman of the Restaurant Association. "Write to them directly to remind them of their allergen labelling obligations."
And if they don't play ball? "We've responded by evaluating all our suppliers to make sure that they are ready for the change - some of them have been slow to respond so we've stopped working with them altogether,"says Ali Guvemli, chief product officer at JJ Food Service.
On the other hand, other suppliers will be much more clued up than the operators themselves. "Many of our suppliers have created guides to understanding the legislation, which have been created to assist you with the legal requirements," explains Emma Warrington, food buyer at Beacon Purchasing.
"For example, one of Beacon's suppliers, 3663, has created a QR code reader called Rapid Ingredients Checker (RIC) which is there to help you find out what's in your dish. It will tell you everything you need to know, including ingredients, nutritional information and allergen details."
3 IMPLEMENT A SYSTEM
Once the allergen information's there, it's crucial to have a system in place for it to be updated in real time, so the information provided to customers is always accurate.
For small businesses, this can be as simple as a spreadsheet, while for larger operations with more resources, there are more hightech
options, like menu engineering systems that pull in and populate supplier ingredients information. Some of these are also affordable for smaller operators, such as the allergen management software created by food purchasing consultancy PSL, which can be used by non-PSL clients for a monthly fee of £10.
"It's very easy to use and it's accessible not just to the caterer; it's also published on a web link that the diner can access with a smartphone in the restaurant," explains managing director Daniel Wilson.
"If you click on a menu it will tell you the allergens per dish or you can put your allergens into the system and it comes up with the dishes suitable for you."
4 REVISIT YOUR MENUS
Allan advises food businesses to think about whether it's possible to offerdishes that are inclusive for allergy and non-allergy customers.
"This means it becomes more cost effective for them," she notes. "The thing they need to make sure though is that when an allergy customer orders such a dish that they have prevention procedures in place to ensure that the dish doesn't get contaminated between prepping, cooking and serving."
She also recommends that some dishes could be made in advance when the environment isn't rushed and has been cleaned down thoroughly. "Dishes could be put into single serve portions, for example," she adds.
Foodservice companies can also review the allergens they currently use, determining precisely where they are in each dish so they can
work out if dishes can be slightly adapted for allergy customers.
"If the allergen's in a sauce, can you actually add the sauce at the end?" Allan asks. "Then, if you don't add sauce, it's suitable for someone with an allergy."
5 INFORM YOUR CUSTOMERS
Telling customers which allergens are in each dish isn't enough; this information also needs to be verifiable. Moreover, having everything written down ensures robust defensibility against any insurance claims.
It is therefore recommended that operators update all front-of-house materials, from menus to blackboards, ensuring customers are clearly signposted to allergen information, something multi-service facilities management group Servest is already on top of.
"We will be making changes to all front-ofhouse marketing materials including labels on sandwiches, menus, as well as point of sales, and we will be ensuring that each unit has full allergen information to hand," says Servest's health and safety manager Simon Horsley.
"We are also updating our recipe database to provide the catering managers and staff with full allergen information.
"It's a big job to change and reprint all of our marketing material and it requires some investment. But it's important that customers have comprehensive information and can easily identify ingredients they need to avoid."
John Scott, managing director of labelling company Planglow, adds: "If you choose to label products you must include a title or name that cannot be misleading. So calling a sandwich something like a 'Sal's Smokin' Hot BLT' would not be advisable as it is unclear what the product is, as well as whether it's smoked, spicy, served hot or any of the above."
6 AVOID CROSS CONTAMINATION
Although the new regulations don't cover allergen cross contamination,enforcement officers will expect to see implementation of best practice methods in order to prevent it. According to Zenith Hygiene Group's technical director Tony Clough, there are a number of guidelines that food businesses can follow.
"Always store foods separately in closed labelled containers. If a food contains one of 14 declarable allergens, label it so it is easily recognisable," he advises. "Also, do not reuse or share any utensils, and if possible have separate areas for handling allergens."
Clough also recommends always using a disposable cloth or paper towel when cleaning, not to be reused; always rinsing items before washing in a dishwasher to prevent recontamination; and washing hands before food preparation and when switching between meals that
may contain different allergens.
"Don't reuse oil to cook different foods," he adds. "Always keep food separate; cooking different allergens in the same oven or grilling
next to each other may lead to contamination."
7 TRAIN YOUR STAFF
The new legislation requires businesses to have 100% knowledge of the 14 named allergens in the ingredients they're using - and that means each and every employee.
"Full-time and part-time staff, new and experienced; all need to be aware of this legislation," Loewi emphasises. "Don't leave it to one person to manage. And don't just train once; train often and keep reminders around the kitchen in places your staff will see them. Staff will need to communicate about things they wouldn't ordinarily discuss such as brands supplied in a delivery or slight changes in a recipe."
At Sodexo, new training modules have been introduced including an allergens e-learning module that is mandatory for all foodservice staff and will be repeated on an annual basis.
8 KEEP UP TO DATE
It's not just training that needs to be carried out on an ongoing basis; it's crucial that all information related to allergens in dishes is kept 100% up to date.
"It's not enough to look through your menu once; you need to regularly check ingredients coming in from suppliers and that you control
ingredients substitutions. Any substitutions containing additional allergens have to be updated within the information you are providing to your customers," Allan advises.
At abarbistro in Portsmouth, owner David Moore has implemented an ingredients sheet, which the chefs produce each morning alongside
the daily specials. "This is the biggest change we've made and it complements the ingredients bible for our main menu and is available for our customers to read," he says.
Loewi adds: "Keep allergens on your pre-shift meeting agendas so that every time you introduce new dishes you talk in detail about the recipes and any allergens."
9 GET SOME HELP
Still confused? Despite the lack of awareness of the new regulations across the industry, there is plenty of help at hand.
"Together with the British Hospitality Association (BHA) we have created a Guidance Toolkit designed to assist members in understanding
and implementing the new allergen regulations," Loewi notes. "It's available free to all members and includes a toolkit, training notes, template materials and a community online Q&A forum.
"The BHA has also been hosting a series of regional roadshows to help businesses get fully up to speed on the legislation. Already some 200 members have attended these sessions."
There is also help available from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), the Food Standards Agency (FSA) itself, many of the larger suppliers, purchasing organisations and technology providers, and private training companies like Allergy Aware Kitchen.
At abarbistro, outside help has been invaluable. "We have employed an environmental health officer as a consultant to help us put all
the systems in place and run courses for all of our staff to educate them of the requirements of the new laws," Moore says. "I really recommend that everyone seeks help on this."
10 USE IT AS A BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY
People with coeliac disease alone make up 1% of the UK population, a potential untapped market of £100 million according to Coeliac UK. And gluten's just one of the 14 allergens covered by the new legislation. "[Operators forget] the fact that that the allergic community is an untapped market and could give a foodservice organisation a potential massive profit boost," Allan stresses.
"They just need to put a bit of care and investment into processes."
Covering all the bases at CH&Co
Catering group CH&Co is covering all the bases when it comes to preparing its 3,000 staff for the new regulations. The company is hosting a series of roadshows and has developed online training courses, and online and printed information for its chefs and front-of-house teams.
In October 400 executive chefs, chefs and managers attended bespoke roadshows, which took them through the food labelling requirements, including allergen labelling. This was followed by an online training course, which the chefs and managers then imparted
to their teams.
Finally, CH&Co has created signage, point-of-sale information and revised menu cards, which are being rolled out to all its foodservice business units - Charlton House, Chester Boyd, Ampersand, Lusso and Apostrophe.
"We are constantly reviewing and improving our training opportunities, and developing our staff so they can competently interpret the requirements of the Food Information for Consumers Regulation and its importance to the business," says health and safety manager Emma Hill.
"We see this as a natural extension of our chef nutrition training scheme, which is why we are committing so much time to training all chefs in our B&I and commercial business units."
However, the process hasn't been without challenges. "Deciphering the legislation was interesting and more so the lack of information to support businesses," says CH&Co's HR director Alison Gilbert, adding that guidance from local authorities and the BHA has been a great help.
So are there any challenges still to come? "None," Gilbert says. "We believe we are fully prepared."
THE ALLERGENS IN THE RULING
There are 14 main food allergens listed by the EU in the new regulations:
- Tree nuts (such as walnuts or hazelnuts)
- Sulphur dioxide (at levels above 10mg/kg)
Lack of awareness
A recent Freedom of Information (FOI) survey found that most local authorities have done little to inform and help businesses understand and prepare for the new allergen regulations, despite the fact that operators that do not comply could face unlimited fines.
Indeed, of the 47 county council or unitary authorities that responded to the FOI request, 37 had done little to help businesses in their areas prepare for the new law and just 10 were deemed to have performed well, with the vast majority planning to tell businesses about the
law change during routine inspections.
For example, when asked what press releases and announcements had been issued relating to the new rules, Herefordshire Council replied: 'None; we have been awaiting guidance from FSA', while an email from North East Lincolnshire Council stated: 'Please explain to business that we don't have resources to produce guidance and for now to just provide the link to the raw directive.'
"Nothing is being done locally," says restaurateur David Moore, owner of abarbistro in Portsmouth. "How difficult is it to produce a simple set of guidelines and email every foodserving establishment?
"My fear is that the authorities don't actually understand the new laws themselves; yet they are the ones who can enforce and prosecute for failure to comply. By now they could have held some forums for restaurateurs helping us to understand their requirements and our obligations so that we are all educated."
The FOI survey isn't the only one that has found food businesses to be under-informed about the new regulations. An August survey by Unilever revealed that 44% of food businesses were unaware of the new rules.
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