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Nut so nice

All about food allergies – Stephen Lee explains.

About ten people die every year in the UK from an allergic reaction to food. When someone has a food allergy, even the tiniest amount can cause a severe reaction called anaphylaxis (also known as anaphylactic shock). The majority of anaphylactic shocks are caused by food from a restaurant or takeaway. Caterers need to be aware of food allergy and treat the issue seriously.

If someone with a food allergy asks you whether a dish contains a certain food, you must never guess the answer. Find the information the customer wants and let them decide if they can eat the food. If you can’t find out then say you don’t know. Remember, if someone eats a food they are allergic to, they could die and you could be held responsible.

Some people need to avoid certain foods because they have a food intolerance. About 1 in 100 people, for example, have coeliac disease and therefore need to avoid gluten. While an intolerance to food is not as life threatening as an allergy, an extreme reaction can still be triggered should the wrong food be eaten. It is advisable, therefore, to treat food intolerance with the same level of caution as food allergy.


Section 14 of the Food Safety Act 1990 states: ‘Any person who sells to the purchaser’s prejudice any food which is not of the nature or substance or quality demanded by the purchaser shall be guilty of an offence.’ This means that if someone specifically asks for a meal that doesn’t contain a certain food and you give them a meal that does contain it, you could be prosecuted.

Similarly, The General Food Law Regulation 178/2002 prohibits unsafe food being placed on the market, even though this food may be safe for other people. This means that if someone tells you they have a food allergy or intolerance, it is your responsibility to ensure that the customer receives all the information they require about any food they may be thinking of ordering.

Tomato allergyLabelling legislation in the UK requires 13 specific ingredients always to be labelled on pre-packed foods, these are:

  • Cereals containing gluten i.e. wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt and kamut
  • Crustaceans, such as crabs, lobsters and prawns
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Peanuts (also called groundnuts)
  • Soyabeans (sometimes called soya)
  • Milk
  • Nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, pecans, pistachio nuts, macadamia nuts and Queensland nuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Celery (including celeriac)
  • Shellfish, such as mussels and oysters
  • Mustard
  • Sulphur Dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10mg/kg or 10mg/litre expressed as SO2.

Questions & Answers

How do I know whether a certain food is in one of our dishes?

When making a meal from scratch you should know what is in it. Remember to think about salad dressings and oils used for cooking as well as ingredients you may use to thicken toppings and sauces. Ready-made products should have an accurate ingredients list. Foods that can cause severe reaction can turn up in places you might not expect them. For example:

  • Sauces can contain milk or flour containing gluten
  • Some Indian dishes can be thickened with ground almonds or peanut flour
  • Mustard is often found in dressings
  • Soyabean flour can be found in some burgers and sausages.

What is the best way of letting my customers know that we fully understand the dangers of food allergy?

It's a good idea to put a message on your menu, or on the wall, to let customers with food allergies know they can ask for advice about what dishes contain. If your menu is in a language other than English, provide a full translation.

If a dish contains one of the foods that can cause a severe allergic reaction ensure that this is mentioned in the name of the dish or the description on the menu e.g. ‘Strawberry mousse with almond shortbread'.

Also, remember to update your menu when recipes change.

What else can I do to prevent any problems occurring?

Always store food in separate closed containers, especially nuts, seeds, flour and milk powder. Check deliveries are the same brand as you normally use as different brands may have different ingredients. Wherever possible keep a copy of the ingredient information from labels of ready-made foods, such as desserts and sauces. Check deliveries to ensure you have received what you ordered and be aware of possible changes to the ingredients of foods.

Even the tiniest amount of a food can cause an allergic reaction to someone who is susceptible. Therefore the importance of rigorous cleaning and separation cannot be overstated. Small amounts of foods that can cause severe allergic reactions can get into other dishes because worktops and equipment haven't been cleaned properly.

If you use nuts in a self-service area, such as a salad bar, put up a sign. It is all too easy for nuts to be transferred from one serving bowl to the next if a customer uses the same spoon for both bowls.

Where can I get further advice?

If you want further advice on food allergies and the implications for your business, contact your local authority. They will be able to provide more detailed advice both on this subject and all other areas of food safety. Also, the Food Standards Agency has a website, which provides guidance and information for those involved in the food business.

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