In a departure from our normal blogs looking at general Health and Safety issues, in this blog we are going to look at new laws focusing on the catering trade and the requirement to provide allergy information. If you are not a food provider you may be wondering how this effects you, but stop to think about this for a moment….if you arrange for food for your employees or guests on site, you need to know what information your catering company should be supplying you with.
If, for example, you have not made reasonable efforts to ascertain any food allergies and an employee or non-employee suffers an allergic reaction it is possible for a company to be prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. As in the death of Baby Thomas Egan in 2003 where a nursery was fined £60,000 with costs of £19,000 after they failed to ensure appropriate systems that would prevent him having a milk product that he was allergic to.*
A food allergy is when the body’s immune system reacts unusually to specific foods. This is different to a food intolerance. People with food intolerance may have symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating and stomach cramps. This may be caused by difficulties digesting certain substances, such as lactose. However, no allergic reaction takes place.**
For reasons that are unclear, rates of food allergies have risen sharply in the last 20 years but the general thinking is that it is due to:
- Genetics: Children born into families where allergies already exist have a higher than average chance of developing allergies themselves.
- Hygiene Hypothesis: This suggests that the immune system needs to come into contact with a variety of micro-organisms and bacteria while it is developing at the infant stage, in order that it responds appropriately later in life. We now live in an environment where we use cleaners containing anti-microbial agents, and food preparation is more hygienic than ever.
- Diet: Our diets tend to include more processed foods and less fruit and vegetables. It has been suggested that the increase in food allergy might be due to more allergenic foods, such as peanut, in our diet. However, there is no evidence that this has happened, and many cultures traditionally eat high amounts of certain allergenic foods, for example, peanuts in some Asian communities.
- Changes in how we are exposed to food allergens: A large number of cosmetic products include ingredients derived from nuts and other potentially allergenic foods.***
Around 10 people die in the UK each year due to food allergens.****
Food labelling requirements for pre-packed food have been in place for some time and you can find further information on pre-packed food labeling requirements on the Food Standards Agency website.*****
New Rules for food sold un-packaged
Since December 2014, new EU regulation (the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation 1169/2011) requires food businesses to provide allergy information on food sold unpackaged, in for example catering outlets, deli counters, bakeries and sandwich bars. This has been adopted into English Legalisation as the Food Information Regulations 2014.
These regulations require customers to be told if their food contains any of the following:
- Celery – including any found in stock cubes and soup
- Cereals containing gluten – including spelt, wheat, rye, barley
- Crustaceans – eg crabs, lobster, prawns and shrimp paste
- Eggs – including food glazed with egg
- Lupin – can be found in some types of bread, pastries, pasta
- Molluscs – mussels, land snails, squid, also found in oyster sauce
- Nuts – for example almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamia
- Peanuts – also found in groundnut oil
- Sesame seeds – found in some bread, houmous, tahini
- Soya – found in beancurd, edamame beans, tofu
- Sulphur dioxide – used as a preservative in dried fruit, meat products, soft drinks, vegetables, alcohol.
Businesses can choose how they give the information on allergens contained in their food – for example through conversations with customers, leaflets, food labelling or by highlighting ingredients on menus – but if allergy advice is not clearly given, the Food Standards Agency says there need to be clear signs about where it can be obtained.
The Food Standards Agency has published a guide: Allergen information for loose foods
This guides states:
- That all staff must receive training and information on allergens
- Written information can be on menus or websites
- Allergen menu folders that can be referred to must be available
- Communication to the customer must be consistent from all staff
The guide also states that a customer is responsible for asking food allergen questions but the business must be able to respond with accurate information. In addition, the customer is responsible for relaying any dietary requirements to the business.
The above can be managed quite simply by the business if they are in a fixed location such as a sandwich bar, restaurant or company canteen. However, the difficulty becomes when you supply food to a business such as in a buffet lunch. Your client should take reasonable steps to inform you of any dietary requirements, but you may wish to consider asking that question as part of offering a good service when taking their order.
You may also wish to consider providing menu cards with the food stating the ingredients and allergens or leaving a copy of the allergens menu folder with your client.
I am ordering some outside catering that will be unpackaged, what do I have to do as a business?
The regulations mentioned above will not apply to you as you are not preparing the food. However general best practice for food allergens that should be considered are:
- Make reasonable efforts to ascertain any dietary requirements prior to the event requiring the food. For example this could be a question on a booking form or knowing your employees dietary requirements.
- As part of your order, state to your caterer you would like allergen menu cards for all foods and display them with the food.
- Order a variety of foods that don’t contain known allergens to allow those who have not informed you of their requirements or where there has been a communications break (e.g. IT failure in the booking system when communicating the dietary requirement) a choice.
- Where food is ordered centrally e.g. from a Head Office have an appointed on-site contact who can call the caterer or head office contact direct to confirm any allergy requirements.
Having a food allergy or intolerance can be a real annoyance for the person who has it. These new regulations are designed to make it easier for that person to ascertain any allergens and ensure they have a good experience in your business and come back as a repeat customer. After all isn’t business about giving the customer what they need?