New allergen laws came into force in December to protect the millions of UK consumers that suffer from allergies or intolerances, but are hospitality businesses up to speed yet? Elly Earls finds out
Responses to the new allergen laws, which came into force in December and require all foodservice businesses to know exactly which of the 14 main allergens are in their dishes and be able to communicate this to customers, have been mixed across the industry.
While some operators have gone over and above what's required, becoming compliant long before the 13 December deadline, others are still looking around for solutions or burying their heads in the sand, hoping it won't be their establishment that gets stung with a potentially unlimited fine, or worse, causes a severe allergic reaction.
But have operators that aren't yet complying really understood why the new legislation was introduced, what it means for their operations and, further, what a huge opportunity it could present for their business?
The reasons the new regulations were introduced are simple. "Food allergies can be life-threatening and UK hospital admissions for food allergy have increased by 500% since 1990, with 6%-8% of children having a recognised food allergy to everyday foods," explains Lindsey McManus, deputy chief executive of national allergy charity Allergy UK. "Eating out is one of the main concerns for those affected."
At the Feversham Arms hotel in North Yorkshire, for example, the team created a tool which collates the information for each dish which is updated each time the menu and dishes change. "This is a comprehensive document, which endeavours to take the pressure off the staff - service and kitchen - and gives accurate information to guests," says general manager Charles Merchie.
Crucially, it isn't actually that difficult to comply with the new laws, Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI) vice-chairman Andrew Etherington, owner of Andrew Etherington Associates, is keen to stress. "There was some suspicion that it was going to be quite an onerous and difficult thing to achieve, but [many operators] quickly came to realise that it's far less complicated to put into practice than they thought it was going to be," he says.
Yinka Makinde, founder of Vitalfootprint, which offers a simple online solution for managing allergen data called vitalCustomer, agrees.
"Yes, there's going to be an initial pain point while getting up to speed, but once you've got over that hurdle, it should be quite self-sustaining," she says. "Moreover, the new regulations aren't saying restaurants now have to accommodate people with allergens; they're just saying we want you to know what's in your food and have some way of documenting that information."
Yet according to anecdotal evidence from across the sector, a large proportion of hospitality businesses still haven't got up to speed. Daniel Wilson, managing director of purchasing consultancy PSL, which provides an allergen management system called 'What's in My Dish?', for example, thinks less than half of the industry is where it should be.
While Liz Allan, founder of training provider Allergy Aware Kitchen, has seen varying levels of action being taken. "There are still many who are relying on paperwork alone (and are passing allergen matrixes on to customers to 'work it out' themselves) and those where just one person in the organisation has knowledge and control of the information and paperwork," she says.
Much of the non-compliance, according to consultant chef Steve Walpole, is down to "a lack of understanding or actually not reading the paperwork". He adds that the signatories of the recent, highly publicised letter to The Telegraph, which including Prue Leith and Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers, are a good example. They called the new laws a "bureaucratic nightmare" which will cause "significant damage" to the industry.
"The fact that most of them did not understand nor have all the facts about the laws was an embarrassment," Walpole says.
Others simply think that despite the recent high-profile case at Manchester burger restaurant Almost Famous, where a student died from a suspected allergy attack, that it won't happen to them. "Tragic incidents like this help remind people of the risk, but until there's a visit from
the environmental health officer in the calendar, it's easy to procrastinate," says Ed Dowding, chief executive of Food-Trade, whose allergen compliance solution, FoodTrade Menu, allows food businesses to connect to suppliers that match their ingredient list as well as promoting their allergen-aware menu.
According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), though, it won't be long before local authorities' food enforcement officers, who are responsible for policing the new laws, start to step in. "They will start by talking to businesses and helping them to improve. If this fails, they can take a number of actions to ensure businesses follow the new law.
However, if the business persistently fails to provide allergen information, it could ultimately be taken to court and fined," explains Dr Chun-Han Chan, the FSA's food allergy expert.
Yet many operators that are trying to comply with the laws - particularly smaller players - are still facing challenges, ranging from problems getting information from suppliers to difficulties serving customers with less serious intolerances.
"Spreadsheet bureaucracy, rather than direct communication with the chef, can seem heavy-handed in cases and, in my opinion, not the best way to personally address diners with different levels of allergy," said Miers in a statement on the Wahaca website following the publication of The Telegraph letter, which she didn't feel fully expressed her views.
Jackie Grech, legal and policy director of the British Hospitality Association (BHA) agrees. "Unfortunately, these new regulations mean that you can't deviate from recipes or procedures without updating record-keeping, which makes it practically impossible to be both compliant and responsive to individual customer allergy needs," she notes.
"Moreover, many businesses we speak to are struggling to manage the small print, such as how to handle a change in ingredients in supplied products - few if any read the labels for ingredient changes upon each delivery."
Makinde adds that two of the biggest challenges operators face are finding the time for training and getting the relevant information from suppliers.
Indeed, according to the BHA, 30% of businesses have had problems working with suppliers, with smaller suppliers struggling the most.
However, the larger firms have used the regulations as a point of differentiation. "The introduction of the Food Information Regulations bought about a huge change for the foodservice industry," Catherine Hinchcliff, head of customer marketing at Bidvest 3663, explains. "We have been preparing for more than two years, ensuring our own-brand packaging was complaint and writing to customers to keep them updated on what they needed to do to implement the changes."
Wilson emphasises that many businesses are also confused about how often ingredients need to be checked and systems updated. Best practice is for the operator to update their systems at every menu change and to do a quick review of menus at least once a month. "This is not just for Christmas; this is best practice now," he says.
Of course, with any new legislation, challenges will be faced and criticisms found, but the overriding sentiment is that there's no reason these difficulties can't be overcome and, indeed, turned into a business opportunity.
"This legislation is not the monster everyone seems to think it is, and lots of people find it really very interesting and thought-provoking as it's an opportunity to look afresh at your menu," Dowding says. "The simple fact is that if you're not compliant, you're breaking the law, your insurance is invalid, and you're missing out on an opportunity to confidently welcome 6.5 million customers. Even if it weren't for the legal implications, you can't afford to run a business that way."
Walpole agrees that designing dishes that fit the regulations can be an interesting challenge. "This area is growing and these people have a
strong voice, so if I want to have an ethical and positive business, I [need to adapt] to make this part of my business model," he says.
Alford Arms - extra training for all front-of-house staff
At the Alford Arms in Hemel Hempstead, which won the FreeFrom Eating Out Award in November last year, catering for customers with allergies
has always been a priority.
But changes have still had to be implemented to ensure full compliance with the new laws in two key areas.
"First, and most importantly, has been the extra training to ensure that all front-of-house staff can deal with any customer with limited dietary choices and that our brigade of chefs have the depth of understanding, with regards to the varied ingredients they use, to be able to inform front-of-house accurately of all content," says director Becky Salisbury.
She adds that this hasn't been particularly onerous for the team, as all food is prepared and cooked on-site with fresh produce delivered daily- there
are no hidden ingredients.
Second, a robust system was required for the restaurant's daily specials and Sunday menus. "There is a world of difference between pulling the allergen information together for our quarterly changing main menus and having to do it twice daily in the case of our specials," she explains.
"Our team have become adept at double-checking every possibility to guarantee accuracy of allergen labelling for all dishes."
Hakkasan - allergy champions in every restaurant
Before the new allergen laws came into force in December, Hakkasan already had several standard operating procedures (SOPs) relating to allergy awareness in place; these have simply been strengthened in order to fully comply.
Previous SOPs included asking guests about their dietary requirements at the point of reservation and when taking a cocktail or food order, and regular food and allergy training and allergy charts for food and beverages in the kitchen pass area. These were updated as new dishes were introduced or the ingredients were changed.
Now the group has taken things one step further. "Some examples include: providing separate allergy menus as per the 14 allergens; nominating an allergy champion for each restaurant; extensive allergen training; working with our suppliers to source products suitable for certain allergies; obtaining product specifications; and examining raw ingredients," explains Michelle Hunt, operations manager at Hakkasan Mayfair, Sake no Hana and central operations in the UK.
And it's not just customers that are seeing the upside. "To ensure our team members also benefit, at inductions we now request they fill in a dietary requirement form. This allows us to provide food that is suitable to their needs at the time of their staff meal," Hunt says.
Most customers say the situation has not improved
Following the introduction of the new allergen regulations, training provider Allergy Aware Kitchen conducted a survey to investigate what, if anything, has changed from the consumer perspective. And the results have been far from awe-inspiring. Indeed, the survey of 100 customers who suffer from food allergies and intolerances indicated that, for the majority, their eating out experience has not improved: 59% said nothing had changed; 11% reported that they had found the situation had actually got worse; and only 30% believe that eating out is now better.
Moreover, 54% of those questioned said they felt the staff didn't understand their requirements and 67% weren't given any written allergen information to back up verbal communication - a basic requirement of the legislation.
Liz Allan, founder of Allergy Aware Kitchen, believes the results highlight why training is so important. "Despite some chefs complaining about the new regulations, the fact is that this is a growing opportunity and it is now estimated that around 6.5 million people in the UK suffer from a food allergy or intolerance. For many of these customers it is crucial, if not vital, that whenever they are eating out of home, the business understands their needs. It needn't be difficult to do - but a restaurant, café or event organiser that does take the time can see real business benefits as a result."
Food scares stoke fear factor
Food fraud adds another level of complexity to the issue of confidently reporting what is contained in every dish. And it's one that's been making the headlines in recent months due to a bad cumin harvest in India, which has led some experts to fear that fraudsters are replacing cumin with almonds and peanuts, something that could have severe consequences for the UK's half a million nut and legume allergy sufferers.
According to the FSA, there is not yet any evidence of food fraud, but nonetheless, it's an issue that's being taken very seriously. "More than 100 tests have been carried out by the FSA and the industry. A further 100 tests are under way. To date there have been six allergy alerts for a number of food products sold at retail," says Dr Chun-Han Chan, the FSA's food allergy expert.
"The FSA, the British Retail Consortium, the Food and Drink Federation and the Seasoning and Spice Association have also met with representatives from across the food industry to discuss what further measures might be needed to strengthen consumer protection."
So, in the meantime, what can operators do to ensure they are not affected by contamination like this? "Businesses should only buy ingredients from reputable suppliers," Chan advises. "If they have concerns, they should raise them with the businesses they have purchased the products
from to confirm what controls are in place."