Estimates suggest that around 2 million people in the UK have a clinically proven food allergy. For these people, quality of life can be severely affected directly through exposure to an allergen or indirectly through the fear of being exposed. This fear is not unwarranted as the most recent reports suggest that up to 10 people die in the UK each year because of food allergen exposure. Dr Mike Bromley, Genon Laboratories, lifts the lid on the laws surrounding testing and labelling allergens for caterers in the UK
Allergens can be present in a wide and diverse range of foods. The presence of these allergens in our food can be a significant health risk for some. Regulation, in the guise of the Food Information for Consumers (FIC) legislation, specifies that 14 specific allergens (see opposite) must be declared if they are present in our food. In its most recent incarnation, this legislation not only covers packaged food, but unpackaged food, any food sold in catering establishments and applies to food business operators at all stages of the food chain. This places an emphasis on food businesses to ensure allergen information is available to end consumers
The EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation became law on 13 December 2014. It states that information about the following 14 allergens both in non-pre-packed and pre-packed foods has to be readily available for consumers.
|Cereals containing gluten namely wheat (such as spelt and Khorasan wheat), barley, rye and oats - these can be found in some types of baking powder, couscous, meat products, pasta, pastry, sauces, soups and fried foods that are dusted with flour||Nuts not to be mistaken with peanuts (which are actually a legume and grow underground), this ingredient refers to nuts that grow on trees such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio, Macadamia and cashew|
|Crustaceans such as crabs, lobster, prawns and scampi - watch out for shrimp paste that is often used in Thai and south-east Asian curries or salads||Celery this includes celery stalks, leaves, seeds and the root called celeriac. You can find celery in celery salt, salads, some meat products, soups and stock cubes|
|Eggs found in cakes, some meat products, mayonnaise, sauces, pastries and foods brushed or glazed with egg||Mustard found in breads, curries, marinades, meat products, salad dressings, sauces and soups|
|Fish found in some fish sauces, pizzas, relishes, salad dressings, stock cubes and Worcestershire sauce||Sesame often found in bread, houmous, tahini and always in sesame oil|
|Peanuts found in items such as biscuits, cakes, curries, desserts, sauces and groundnut oil||Sulphur dioxide or sulphites often used in dried fruit such as raisins, dried apricots and prunes. Can also be found in meat products, soft drinks, vegetables, wine and beer. People with asthma have a higher risk of developing a reaction to sulphur dioxide|
|Soya a staple ingredient in oriental food, soya is often found in bean curd, edamame beans, miso paste, textured soya protein, tofu, desserts, meat products, sauces and vegetarian products||Lupin found in some types of bread, pastries and pasta|
|Milk watch out for milk in powdered soups and sauces||Molluscs including mussels, land snails, squid and whelks, but can also be commonly found in oyster sauce and as an ingredient in fish stews|
Icons courtesy of the Food Standards Agency
Further information and resources including chef cards, can be found on the Food Standard Agency’s website.
The British Hospitality Association’s website also contains useful information www.bha.org.uk/allergen-toolkit
Stating that allergens are not present as ingredients is not the same as declaring a product is free from the allergen. To avoid confusion, this should be made abundantly clear to customers, however the question is how best to communicate it.
One particular section of the FIC legislation makes indirect reference to this. It states that information provided on a voluntary basis ‘shall not mislead the customer’, ‘shall not be ambiguous’ and ‘shall be based on the relevant scientific data’. Some would argue that a blanket declaration that any allergen may be present could be misleading, and not based on available scientific (testing) data. Several companies have instead opted for a more informative approach stating that certain allergens are not used as ingredients in a specific product however the allergen is used on site or by their ingredient manufacturers.
For those companies that extend their declarations to free-from, the financial rewards are potentially lucrative. The free-from food market has grown by an estimated 325% over the last nine years to 2015 and is expected to exceed half a billion GBP sales in 2016, according to Mintel. It is time for the food industry as a whole to respond to the growing market and cater for people with allergies and intolerances. As such, it remains vitally important that the science behind allergen labelling is sound, which is why implementing an effective allergen risk assessment procedure could have massive benefits for businesses in the hospitality and catering industries.
Safe thresholds unclear
There are nuances to the rules surrounding allergens that often fly under the radar, for example, the definition of ‘free from’ in some instances is vague. Most allergens do not have a legislated safe limit, as insufficient scientific data is available to establish safe thresholds. Consensus has, however, been derived in relation to gluten allergen. To label something as free-from gluten, a food sample should contain no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten when tested.
The matter of establishing safe thresholds for other allergens is a continuing issue, particularly because what might be deemed safe for one allergy sufferer may not be safe for another. This means that the thresholds that will eventually be identified as being ‘safe’ for the vast majority of the population probably will not be applicable to everyone. While research is ongoing, the issue currently has no straightforward answer and for caterers this is yet another reason to seek advice before making free-from declarations.
There are many prominent risk areas for caterers including: manufacturer contamination, staff-introduced contaminants, cross-contamination and even gaps in staff training or knowledge. These risks are heightened due to frequent changes in food type being prepared, minimal space for storage and the pressures of immediate service to consumers.
While these risks can generally be reduced or overcome with internal risk analysis, supplier checks, auditing and staff training, it is essential that the effectiveness of these measures be continually monitored. At all times, caterers must be vigilant and ensure they have best-practice procedures in place.
Providers employ dedicated on-site technical staff teams to ensure each allergen-detection procedure is followed rigorously, it is advisable that outside resources are called upon both to guarantee compliancy and safeguard the business as a whole. The sheer level of scientific knowledge and understanding required to ensure companies remain compliant with legislation means that even the largest of operators will probably require some level of external support when it comes to testing for allergens and monitoring internal compliance procedures.
For smaller businesses on an even tighter budget, advances in technology have resulted in affordable and accessible allergen-testing methods entering the market. Genon Laboratories, for example, has recently developed ‘Test in a Box’ – an allergen testing kit specifically designed to be used on site in the catering and hospitality industries.
The emergence of these new technologies means that companies of all sizes should now be able to minimise the risks they may not have thought of previously, thereby ensuring they are demonstrating awareness and care around allergen issues.
Dr Mike Bromley is founder of Genon Laboratories and a lecturer in Medical Mycology at the University of Manchester. For information on the services provided by Genon Laboratories, visit www.genonlabs.co.uk