AllergensAll food businesses should be aware of food allergies.
A food allergy is an abnormal, exaggerated reaction of the immune system to certain proteins in food. These proteins are known as allergens.
People who eat foods which they are allergic to, even in extremely small amounts, can suffer a very severe reaction, known as anaphylaxis.
The role of food businessesFood businesses have a legal responsibility to:
- provide safe food
- manage food safety risks including those from allergens
- make sure foods are accurately labelled
- make sure any allergen-free claims are accurate.
We provide businesses with a safe catering pack which includes a section on food allergies. This should be completed by the business operator and will help raise awareness and knowledge of the issue among staff.
If someone with a food allergy asks you if a dish contains certain ingredients which they may be allergic to, you must never guess the answer. Remember, you don't have to provide someone with an allergen-free meal but if you mislead someone with a food allergy into thinking that a dish doesn't contain a certain allergen then the consequences could be very serious.
Many businesses perceive that if the allergen isn't included in the recipe, then the food should be safe. However, if an allergen is used or stored on your premises, this can contaminate the allergen-free food unless control measures are in place.
If you do decide to provide an allergen-free meal, you must be able to guarantee that:
- no allergens have been used as ingredients in the meal
- no allergens have been used as a garnish or cooking medium, for example, in oils
- any risk of cross-contamination with allergens has been eliminated.
Our roleWe understand the serious and potentially fatal consequences that a person with a food allergy could suffer if they consumed allergens. We help businesses to understand and meet legal requirements and we monitor compliance and take action where necessary to correct non-compliance.
We also recognise that for businesses managing allergens isn't just about removing the risk of supplying food to allergen sufferers. Allergen sufferers are also consumers and should have as wide a range of foods and restaurants to choose from as possible. So we support and encourage businesses, where appropriate, to offer allergen-free foods or accommodate allergen sufferers in other ways.
We use targeted sampling of foods and participate in allergen surveys to make sure that foods are safe to eat and that the food is properly described and labelled (including the presence of allergens). This includes sampling foods imported through the port of Belfast. Where we've purchased nut-free meals from take away food outlets, surveys have been carried out and analysed for the presence of nuts. We took follow up action for foods which contained this allergen.
We also investigate complaints made by members of the public including allergy claims made by businesses.
We look at claims made during inspections and if an allergen-free food is offered we'll investigate how this food is made to make sure that it's free from allergens. This can involve an examination of the recipe and manufacturing process as well as sampling of the food to find out if allergens are present.
Common allergensThe following foods are common allergens and are outlined in law:
- sesame seeds
- celery (including celeriac)
- cereals containing gluten
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites.
Requests about these foods should be treated with the same importance as the allergens outlined above.
- Know your recipes and ingredients thoroughly
- Manage ingredients information and keep it available on request
- Ask suppliers to notify you of any changes to ingredients
- Check that items delivered match exactly those ordered
- Store key allergens separately where practical, and make sure that they're kept covered and clearly labelled
- Make sure that all staff are alert to food allergy risks and have up to date training appropriate to their activities
- Test your employees' knowledge regularly
- Show staff how to wash up and clean effectively and alert them to allergy cross-contamination risks and how to control them
- Make sure that menus and signs have allergy messages to encourage allergic customers to ask about food on sale
Preparing allergen-free mealsBefore providing these meals, you need to check the following areas:
Order, delivery and storage procedures
- Are procedures in place to check the allergen content of any substitute ingredients used?
- Is ingredient labelling kept with foods during storage?
- Have you controlled any cross-contamination risks during storage?
Ingredients which contain allergens should be decanted in an area where they won't contaminate other food products.
Use containers with a lid to store allergens and use colour-coded boxes to identify and prevent their reuse with other ingredients.
- Have you assigned a trained member of staff to prepare an allergen-free meal?
- Have you controlled cross-contamination risks during food preparation?
- deciding which work areas should be used to prepare allergen-free meals
- cleaning work surfaces thoroughly with hot water and detergent
- making sure staff wash their hands thoroughly
- cleaning all equipment and utensils before using them
- using fresh oils to prepare the meal
- controlling the risk of contamination from flour or crumbs
- assigning a member of staff to work only on the allergen-free meal until it's ready.
- Have you considered the cross-contamination risks presented by self-service or buffet-style meals?
- Have you controlled the cross-contamination risks involved in serving your food?
- only using clean crockery and utensils
- plating allergen-free meals separately to prevent cross-contamination from garnishes or food products
- making sure the table area where the customer will actually eat the meal is thoroughly cleaned
- having one member of staff deal with allergy requests to eliminate any chance of orders getting mixed up.
- Have you made sure frontline staff are adequately trained to deal with requests for allergen-free meals?
- Have you appointed someone to deal with allergen-free requests in case a member of staff cannot provide full and accurate information?
- Have you trained all relevant food handlers in how to prepare an allergen-free meal?
- Does your menu clearly indicate the presence of allergens in the dish's name?
- Do you update your menu when recipes or ingredients change?
- Does your menu encourage customers to ask staff about allergens contained in your dishes?
ComplaintsIf someone is alleging food poisoning against your business, do you know what to do? Contact us immediately. Outside of office hours you can phone us on 07850 499622.
Gluten-free guideThe Food Standards Agency has published a factsheet to help caterers understand when to label food 'gluten free' when the rules change next year. It has been published to coincide with National Coeliac Awareness Week.
The key change, after 1 January next year, will be that the term 'gluten free' can only be used on foods that contain less than 20 parts of gluten in a million. Recent evidence has shown that using this extremely low level will offer better protection for people with an intolerance to gluten. Previously, there was no limit set in law for foods described as 'gluten-free' and so levels could vary.
With an easy to use flow chart, the factsheet will assist caterers and those in the hospitality industry train their staff so that they can understand the new descriptions and exactly what they mean so that they can explain to customers what the foods contain and how they are made.
Later this year, the Agency will be providing specific information for consumers to help raise awareness of the new rules.