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Allergy labelling: are you ready?

19 September 2014 by
Allergy labelling: are you ready?

New laws require foodservice operators to have detailed knowledge of the allergens present in every product they serve and to be able to communicate this to consumers. Elly Earls finds out whether the industry is ready

On 13 December 2014 new legislation will come into force requiring catering operators to provide detailed allergy information, not only on their pre-packed food, but also on menu items that are sold unpackaged. Those who don't comply will potentially face unlimited fines.

And while many foodservice businesses are on top of their obligations and ready to roll out new systems and updated training programmes in time for or even ahead of the looming deadline, others remain unaware, not only of what needs to be done, but also of the amount of time, money and effort required.

The number of people affected by food allergies in the UK is on the rise, with 1% to 2% of adults and 5% to 8% of children estimated to have a food allergy. Around 10 people die from allergic reactions to food every year.

"Legislation has been introduced because of the increase in allergies, intolerances and coeliac disease across the UK and Europe, and the increased incidents of consumers falling ill or suffering anaphylaxis while eating out or ordering takeaway meals," says Caroline Benjamin, director of the Food Allergy Training Consultancy (FATC).

So what do the new laws mean for catering businesses? In a nutshell, the Food Information for Consumers (FIC) Regulation 1169/2011 has two parts. First, it requires food businesses who supply pre-packed foods to highlight 14 allergens, including cereals containing gluten, eggs and peanuts, in the ingredients list.
And second, businesses that provide non-pre-packed food, such as hot meals, also need to provide information on the same 14 allergenic ingredients, either in writing or orally.

The cap on the statutory fine has been removed, so operators who breach the legislation could face an unlimited fine.

"Under the rules, a consumer can ask any staff member what a dish or product contains and employees cannot simply say they do not know whether a food contains an allergen or that it 'may' contain allergens. If the employee does not know, they must know where to get the information," says Diana Spellman, managing director of catering procurement agency Partners In Purchasing.

But according to research undertaken by Unilever Food Solutions, almost half of foodservice operators (44%) are unaware of their obligations. It asked over 500 operators whether they were able to identify the allergens and 54% could not name what ingredients might cause problems. To fill in the knowledge gap, some 53% said they would look to their suppliers for advice.

Wendy Duncan, technical manager for Unilever Food Solutions, says: "It's apparent from our research and queries from customers that operators are concerned about the new legislation. Only a third of businesses said they felt ready for the change; 85% of caterers told us that they would like a handbook to help them
prepare; and 44% believe they need to invest more in training."

Update in real time

So where to start? "Caterers need to start with their supply chain and ensure they have up-to-date information for the ingredients in all of their products and a system that can be updated in real-time so the information presented to consumers is always accurate," says Spellman.

"Once that information is in place, caterers can work to create menus which are either knowingly free from allergens or at least be aware of which allergens are in the food and be able to communicate that to consumers."

For many caterers that have already started readying their operations for the new legislation, updating their database is the biggest challenge. Indeed, even at Sodexo, which has been preparing for the change for several years by collecting nutritional data from its suppliers, it hasn't been easy - largely because of the
business's sheer size.

"The biggest challenge for us is that, given the scale and complexity of our foodservice business, Sodexo will have to apply the FIC regulations across a number of different sectors. This will mean collecting and disseminating information on food to thousands of sites in numerous settings," says Wan Mak,
Sodexo's head of nutrition and dietetics.

Businesses that rely heavily on local suppliers are likely to face the greatest challenges when it comes to ensuring customers get the correct information, says Benjamin.

"Those businesses who use the larger suppliers, such as 3663 and Brakes, will have a chain of communication and direct access to information, but smaller suppliers who change products on a regular basis could be an issue," she says.

Paper trail

In these cases, it is more important than ever to make sure there is a clear paper trail between supplier and operator, as well as either manual or electronic systems to ensure the allergen content of foods is recorded accurately and in real time.

"To ensure a robust defence against claims, caterers should not only provide clear and accurate information regarding use of allergenic ingredients but - crucially - they should also ensure that they are in a position to prove that they have done so," says Katie Maycock, leisure and hospitality practice leader at risk advisory and insurance broker Willis.

Staff training and awareness at BaxterStorey

At BaxterStorey, which has 745 premises, thousands of employees and a workforce of 1,500 Allergy Champions, the team has been preparing for the roll-out of the new legislation since it was first announced in October 2011 - but has still faced significant challenges.

"Time planning has been a critical factor in our preparation for the new allergens legislation. With such a large workforce it has been no mean feat to bring each team member up to speed on the new rules," says project director Tom Barrett.

It's here where Barrett believes operators that are behind on their obligations are most likely to slip up. "Despite much industry awareness of the new allergens legislation, the challenges of implementing the requirements are significant and operators introducing the guidelines may not be aware of the time commitment necessary in order to successfully meet the new rules," he says.

"Operators who have not yet started to respond should begin now - staff training and awareness is key to responding to customers, and this takes time to implement."

Bennett Hay adapts its processes In April 2014, contract catering company OCS started trialling a new software system - Techef from Jamix - which contains the nutritional information for every single ingredient used in its kitchens across its 300 UK sites, and it's already paying dividends.

"Chefs input their menus into the system, and it then automatically calculates the nutritional and allergen content of those meals. The system allows chefs to print out this information, either as stickers to be placed on grab-and-go food such as sandwiches, or on paper for menu boards for hot meals," explains executive chef Errol Rose.

"The new system ensures we have complete transparency of every ingredient in our supply chain and can easily and accurately communicate that to our customers."

Rose adds: "We have created a booklet about the allergen regulations explaining to staff everything they need to know about the rules and how they need to adapt their behaviour accordingly.

"There is also information on MyOCS, our company intranet, and we have produced two posters - 7 Tips on Food Allergy and Know your Allergens - which will be displayed in our customer sites."

Setting the standards with software

In April 2014, contract catering company OCS started trialling a new software system - Techef from Jamix - which contains the nutritional information for every single ingredient used in its kitchens across its 300 UK sites, and it's already paying dividends.

"Chefs input their menus into the system, and it then automatically calculates the nutritional and allergen content of those meals. The system allows chefs to print out this information, either as stickers to be placed on grab-and-go food such as sandwiches, or on paper for menu boards for hot meals," explains executive chef Errol Rose.

"The new system ensures we have complete transparency of every ingredient in our supply chain and can easily and accurately communicate that to our customers."

Rose adds: "We have created a booklet about the allergen regulations explaining to staff everything they need to know about the rules and how they need to adapt their behaviour accordingly. "There is also information on MyOCS, our company intranet, and we have produced two posters - 7 Tips on Food Allergy and Know your Allergens - which will be displayed in our customer sites."

Frequently asked questions

What types of food allergies are there?

There are currently 14 main food allergens listed by the EU FIR 1169/2011:

1 Gluten-containing cereals
2 Crustaceans
3 Molluscs
4 Fish
5 Peanuts
6 Lupin
7 Tree nuts (such as walnut or hazelnut)
8 Soya
9 Eggs
10 Milk
11 Celery
12 Mustard
13 Sesame
14 Sulphur dioxide (At levels above 10mg/kg or 10mg/litre)

What happens if a sufferer consumes the substance they are allergic to? This can vary from person to person, from slight discomfort and/or a rash to a severe anaphylactic reaction and possible death.

Why are the laws changing? The regulations are put in place to enable the consumer to make a safedecision when purchasing foods for their consumption in relation to any food allergies they may have.

Which companies will be affected? The legislation covers all food supply business at all stages of the food supply chain, specifically relating to the provision of detailed information of food allergens contained within your product and how you will provide this information to the end user.

Who is creating these regulations? The European Commission.

What are the timescales for this? The regulations were brought in on 13 December 2011 and need to be in place by 13 December 2014

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