The need to identify food allergens in meals has emerged as a huge headache for many care homes, as Katey Pigden reports
Food businesses must provide clear and accurate information about dishes which contain any of the 14 allergens specified in the legislation introduced last year.
Care homes are no exception, but many are finding the regulations challenging to implement, according to research. A survey of care homes by foodservice buying consultancy Acquire Services revealed that 53% had had to make big changes to the way they operate as a result of the Food Information for Consumers Regulation, which came into force on 13 December 2014. The changes included updating policies and procedures, training staff and reworking menus.
Several services have been developed to help the care homes navigate the allergen laws. They include Acquire's Epsys e-trading platform, which aims to streamline the buying process and make it easier to identify dishes that are allergen-free.
Ed Bevan, marketing and communications director for Acquire, says: "Care home caterers need to be aware of 14 allergens. While some are obvious, such as eggs, milk and fish, many allergens are hidden where you may least expect them. This means caterers need to be familiar with the constituents of every ingredient in the kitchen.
Neel Radia, national chair of the National Association of Care Catering (NACC), says: "Food allergen legislation is a good thing. It is important to ensure all dietary requirements are safely catered for, particularly in the care sector where the needs of the elderly and vulnerable can be complex. However, for some care caterers, implementation has presented a real challenge.
"For larger care groups with the resources to access and invest in the right information, systems, skilled personnel and training, menu compliance has been relatively straightforward. But for small, independent care homes, it is a different story. A lack of resources, and consequently a lack of information and training, has isolated smaller care homes, and menu compliance has been a struggle."
Radia says that support is available, with the NACC offering information signposting and best practice sharing. He adds: "Any provider needing support should visit the NACC website, or get in touch."
Christopher Dean, a qualified chef who used to run his own restaurant, is director of dining and procurement at Sunrise Senior Living. The company acquired Gracewell Healthcare last year and has 42 care homes across the country serving 3,300 residents. He thinks the new regulation pays too little attention to implementation. "It's easier to do in restaurants," he says, "but care homes and other sectors present their own challenges. We use an electronic system. There's not as much admin work involved this way, which means chefs can spend more time in the kitchen. We consult with the residents about what they want and what they don't want - ultimately it's their home. We try to keep the food and wording simple."
Catherine Kidd is quality and standards manager at Barchester Healthcare, which has more than 200 care homes across the UK with around 11,500 residents. She says: "We're a big company and have a hospitality team. But I think it would have been a hard ask for many chefs at smaller organisations. Some care homes won't have the resources we have."
The regulations help information about allergen ingredients to be given in a clearer and more consistent way. This is good news for consumers as it helps them identify safer food choices when buying food or eating out. And while some care homes may have struggled to implement the regulations, relevant tools, training and ultimately experience will help make the process easier.
The 14 allergens
- Tree nuts (such as walnuts and hazelnuts)
- Sesame seeds
- Cereals containing gluten
- Celery and celeriac
- Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (at levels above 10mg/kg)