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Allergens in food


This guide takes you through the legislation, training and documentation needed to help your business comply with the law relating to the control of allergens in food, so you can confidently serve people with allergies or intolerances to specific ingredients.

It is not always easy to create a fully documented and accountable system of control for allergen management in food. We hope that having all the information available through this website will help make it more accessible.

We are here to help and can offer tailored business advice to assist you in developing an effective allergen control system in your food business. If you have any questions or would like further guidance on allergen management, contact us.

The risks

Allergic reactions can be life threatening. They must be taken seriously by everyone working in the food industry – from manufacturer, to caterer, to delivery driver.

  • It is estimated that 21.3 million adults in the UK suffer from at least one allergy (Mintel, 2010).
  • UK hospital admissions for food allergies have increased by 500% since 1990 (Gupta, 2007).
  • On average, one person is admitted to hospital every minute due to an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis (NHS digital).
  • 92% of those living with a severe allergy are concerned about eating out (Allergy UK).

The consequences of not providing the right information to your customers could be fatal.

Watch the story of 15-year-old Megan Lee who passed away after suffering an allergic reaction. Heartfelt thanks to Lancashire County Council Trading Standards and Hyndburn Borough Council Environmental Health for allowing us to share their video, and to the Lee family for sharing their story.

Understand your responsibilities

It is the responsibility of all food businesses to provide accurate allergen information to all customers who request it and ultimately to provide food that is safe for people with allergies.

Allergens

There are 14 allergens recognised in law:

  • Cereals containing gluten, such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut and their hybridised strains.
  • Peanuts (also called groundnuts).
  • Nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, macadamias and Queensland nuts.
  • Fish.
  • Crustaceans (includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps and prawns).
  • Molluscs (includes mussels, cockles, oysters, scallops, squid and octopus).
  • Sesame seeds.
  • Eggs.
  • Milk and milk products (including lactose).
  • Soybeans.
  • Celery.
  • Lupin.
  • Mustard.
  • Sulphur dioxide and sulphites at levels above 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/litre expressed as SO2.

The Food Information Regulations 2014 require a food business to provide information to customers relating to the allergen content of all its food. This means that allergen information must be available on request and it is a criminal offence not to provide this information.

Learn more about the requirements in our online guide Food allergens and intolerance.

Remember: it is best to refuse to serve a customer if you can’t meet their dietary requirements.

If a customer declares any allergy to you, you have a legal responsibility to ensure that the food you provide is safe for them to eat, regardless of whether it is one of the 14 listed allergens or not. We therefore recommend a system capable of identifying all ingredients in each product.

After careful consideration, using the resources provided here, if you do not feel you can safely provide a dish for the customer, it is OK to say No and politely explain to them that you cannot confidently and safely cater for their needs.

Changes to the law

In October 2021 legislation is changing. New additions to the requirements for pre-packed for direct sale foods are being introduced as a result of Natasha’s law.

If you pre-pack items on your premise ready for customers to grab and go (e.g. takeaway salad bowls, pre-prepared sandwiches, pastries, cake slices), from this date they will need full ingredient listing with allergens declared in bold.

For further support and advice on the changes contact us.

Staff training

As a food business operator, you must make sure that all staff receive regular training on managing allergens effectively.

We recommend that all staff involved with food handling (including seasonal staff) complete the Food Standards Agency’s free food allergy online training. Once a staff member has completed this they will receive a certificate of continuous professional development. Keep a copy of this training certificate for your own staff records.

Following this, you should ensure all your staff are confidently able to:

  • know what to do when asked to provide allergen information and can accurately handle allergen information requests
  • guarantee that allergen-free meals are served to the right customer
  • know the risks of allergen cross-contamination when handling and preparing foods and how to prevent this.

To ensure that you have thought about how allergens might affect different members of your staff we also recommend you use the Food Standards Agency’s Allergen checklist for food businesses.

Tip: record any updates to staff, discussions on allergens or staff training on allergens in your weekly diary. If you use Safer Food, Better Business, include this in the ‘Extra Checks’ section.

How to develop an allergen control system

Assess all dishes and drinks

To comply with the legal requirement to provide accurate allergen information, we advise food businesses to carry out an assessment to find out which allergens are present. This should include every:

  • dish
  • side dish
  • accompaniment
  • condiment
  • drink.

Tip: don’t forget daily or weekly specials in your allergen management.

Document all ingredients

The best way to record ingredients is by using a matrix-type document, like the Food Standards Agency’s downloadable allergen chart or chef recipe cards. This can be time consuming.

Alongside the information, keep a folder with all the up-to-date labels from products. Remember, if there are changes in products supplied you must review your system.

Tip: date the labels as you add them to your folder.

You must update this information every time you get a delivery or shop for ingredients, to make sure your allergen information is accurate.

This is not a one-off task. It needs to be a living, working document. If you have new dishes, new ingredients, new suppliers, new menus, new equipment, move to new facilities or have staff changes, you need to review, update and replace these matrixes.

Remember: check ingredient packaging/specifications.

Tip: it will not always be obvious from the name of the ingredient that it contains allergens. For example, soy sauce contains wheat, Worcestershire sauce contains fish, bread may contain milk, chocolate contains soya and even dark chocolate may contain milk. Don’t forget to account for anything such as peanut oil used in preparing the food.

MenuCal is an excellent free resource available through the Food Standards Agency Ireland website. It allows businesses to develop menus/keep recipes online and flag allergens as well as undertake additional training.

Tip: a frequent mistake is assuming all vegan food will be suitable for those with allergies to milk, egg or fish for example. However there is potential for cross contamination in these products. You will need to check the ‘May contain’ statements and pass this information on, too.

You also need to consider the layout of your premises, your segregation and cleaning practices, sources of cross-contamination and whether or not you can actually provide safe food for a person with an allergy.

To help you with premise practicalities and cross-contamination prevention, Lancashire County Council Trading Standards Service and Hyndburn Borough Council Environmental Health have produced Food Allergen Information and Controls for Caterers. Print this guide and use it as part of your food safety management system to show that you have considered allergens in your business.

We also recommend keeping an allergens file that contains the matrixes or chef recipe cards that you have completed. Best practice is to have this in a format that you can show the customer so they can confidently select their food.

Keep this file in one set place and train all staff in how to use it.

Serving customers

If asked about allergens, staff should never answer from memory or guess. They should check the file every time.

Allow the customer to see the relevant page in the file if they would like to and let them decide if it is safe for them to eat the food.

Tip: if the chef can speak to the customer directly, this will help the chef to fully understand the request and will give the customer confidence that you are taking their allergen requirements seriously.

Best practice is to always make a written record of the allergen request. Kitchens can be very busy and verbal communication could be misunderstood, unheard or forgotten if not properly recorded.

Depending on the size and layout of your business it may be a good idea to nominate a single member of staff to deal with all orders with specific dietary needs, whether they are an allergy or intolerance, or any other request such as for vegetarian or vegan food.

After carrying out a proper risk assessment of your business practices and facilities, you may decide that you are unable to safely supply foods without the risk of cross-contamination of one or more allergens. This does not negate the requirement for being able to advise which of the 14 allergens are in your food. This is a legal requirement that you are expected to comply with regardless of whether you then feel able to serve those with allergies.

Presenting allergen information

You must make allergen information available to your customers, either by giving them full allergen information or by making it clear how they can get the information through signposting.

Full allergen information

Allergen information can be provided in writing on menus, chalkboards, notices etc, by simply listing the allergens present in the food.

Alternatively, a single allergen notice specifying the allergens present in each dish is permitted, as long as the customer can see it prior to ordering.

If customers place their order at a single point (e.g. by queuing at the counter) the information only needs to be visible from that point. If customers can order from multiple points (e.g. bar or table) you need to present the information at each point (e.g. on the menu).

Tip: use till prompts to remind staff to ask about allergens. You could use a computer system or place a sign at the till.

The most reliable way of providing the allergen information is in writing this is best practice.

One of the biggest causes for allergen control systems failing is a breakdown in communication. Document every dietary request and ensure this is clearly stated on order slips at the till and in the kitchen. Highlight specific requests by putting text in bold, italics or a different colour so they don’t get missed.

Signposting: on the premises

‘Signposting’ is an instruction to the customer explaining how they can get the information.

You can place a notice on display that instructs customers to speak to a member of staff if they require allergen information to be provided verbally. For example, your sign could say: ‘Allergies and intolerance: please speak to a member of staff if you require information about our ingredients’.

The notice should be visible to customers where they place their order. If they can place their order from multiple locations the signposting should be displayed at each one. You can download and print the Food Standards Agency’s food allergies and intolerances notice.

If you choose to provide allergen information verbally, it is a legal requirement to use signs or written statements telling customers this.

If a customer asks about allergens you must give them complete and accurate information. This is best achieved using the allergens file mentioned in the ‘Document all ingredients’ section above.

Tip: think about where the allergen sign is placed. Can it be easily obscured? It must always be visible.

Distance sales

A distance sale is any sale where there is no face-to-face interaction between the customer and the business (e.g via the internet or telephone), so will apply if you offer a takeaway option.

Allergen information must be available for distance sales.

On your website you can provide specific allergen information for each dish alongside its description or signpost through a link to the full menu or an allergens breakdown.

When taking an order on the phone, the member of staff can either invite the customer to ask about allergenic ingredients (e.g. by reading out the in-store allergen statement) or tell the customer that the information is available on the website and prompt them by asking if anyone has allergies or intolerances.

If a customer asks for allergen information, follow the advice in the ‘Document all ingredients’ section above regarding the allergens file.

After taking an order, the information relating to any allergy or intolerance must be clearly passed on to the kitchen and to those responsible for packing the food.

Tip: instruct staff to highlight the allergy request e.g. by underlining it or using a star symbol or highlighter pen.

You must provide allergen information when the food is delivered to the customer. You can do this verbally through signposting, but it’s best practice to provide the information in writing. You can do this by providing an allergen breakdown, giving a menu that lists the allergens, or using stickers that specify what allergens are present (widely available from wholesalers).

Always make sure that delivered foods containing allergens are kept separate from other foods to avoid cross-contamination.

If you rely on delivery staff to provide allergen information, you are relying on them to protect your customer from harm or death. You must consider whether the person is reliable, capable of doing the job correctly and has had the necessary training to do so.

You must ensure that the correct information about allergen requests is passed from the kitchen to the delivery driver.

Further resources

Businesses in Devon, Somerset, Plymouth and Torbay can sign up to a free webinar with officers from Environmental Health and Trading Standards to learn how to control allergens in the food you serve. You will gain a certificate of attendance.

These webinars are taking place on 28 and 29 September and 5 October 2020. You can find out more and sign up on Eventbrite here Allergen Awareness Webinars.



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