It is important for any employer in any industry to have basic knowledge of food allergens and how to deal with them. An estimated 2 million people in the UK have a diagnosed food allergy, and 1 in 100 suffer from coeliac disease, so the likelihood is that you know at least one person who will require special care and attention when it comes to food.
When you are working in a food service industry this topic assumes even greater importance, and in this case all staff need to be trained in allergen awareness.
What are food allergens?
Whilst there are only around 10 food allergy deaths in the UK per year, 1-2% of adults in the UK are suffering from allergies and intolerances to various foods, making food allergens a serious issue. An allergen is a naturally-occurring protein in some foods or food derivatives that trigger an immune response in certain people. This response can range all the way from feeling slightly unwell to sudden death.
There are 14 recognised food allergens, but the 8 most common are:
- Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts etc)
What issues can food allergens cause?
- ‘Itchiness’ in the mouth, throat or ears
- Hives or an itchy red rash
- Swelling of the face, lips, tongue or around the eyes
- Nausea and vomiting
The most severe reaction to a food allergy is anaphylaxis, which needs to be treated immediately as it can lead to death. Symptoms of anaphylaxis are:
- Feeling lightheaded
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Clammy skin
- Confusion and anxiety
- Collapsing or losing consciousness
The best way to avoid a serious food allergy reaction is training staff in how to protect those with food allergies in the first place.
However, there are two ways to treat an allergic reaction that is already happening.
These are used to treat mild to moderate reactions, and won’t be useful in the case of anaphylaxis. Antihistamines work by blocking histamine, a compound released by the body in the event of an allergic reaction, and which cause you to become unwell.
Used for more serious allergic reactions and anaphylaxis, adrenalin administration has the duel effect of narrowing blood vessels in order to help raise low blood pressure, and opening the airways to help the sufferer to breathe. Most sufferers of severe allergies will carry an auto-injector (also known as an epi-pen) which you should locate and use in the event of a reaction.
How can you protect against potential allergens at work?
- Training is critical to ensure that staff members across the board know what allergens are, how to avoid cross-contamination and what procedures to follow for allergen safety best practice.
- All food items should be labelled carefully in order to identify potential allergens.
- Packets should be read thoroughly before being labelled.
- Customers with allergies should be identified as early as possible, and their food should be prepared from scratch using separate cooking utensils to avoid cross-contamination.
- All utensils should be washed thoroughly, or a separate set of clearly marked, allergen-free cooking utensils can be reserved for those with allergies.
- Allergen-free food must be marked clearly.
- Review training regularly with all staff members to refresh their memories, as well as educate newer staff members, alongside those that they can ask for help on the job.
What are the legal requirements regarding allergens?
The EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation came into force in December 2014, requiring all businesses to provide full and accurate allergen information in the foods that they serve. This includes both pre-packed and non pre-packed foods, and covers all 14 allergens.
Pre-packed food includes all foods which are partially or completely enclosed, cannot be altered or added to without opening the packaging, and are ready for sale. These items are required to have a full ingredients list, with allergens emphasised where they appear in the ingredients.
Non pre-packed foods would include delicatessen counters, bakeries and fish counters, takeaways and food served in a cafe or restaurant. In these cases allergen information must be clearly listed or signposted for any item which contains any of the 14 allergens.
Rules are also in place regarding how the food is sold, so that the customer has an easy time identifying any allergens that might be present. This means that with direct selling, such as in restaurants, allergen information must be clearly visible on menus, and with distance selling, such as in takeaways, information must be relayed either on the website or over the phone.
For the most part, large, national companies have been fairly receptive to the new legislation. However, the deaths of two women in 2016 and 2017, after eating food from Pret a Manger which was not clearly labelled, shows that there is still some way to go. Smaller companies have also been slow to catch up with the legislation, which is why new and regular training is still essential.
How you can protect customers with allergies
- Know what you are selling. You need to go through all of your menus and products and collate allergen information in detail. Check and double check what is going into all of your food so that you can be sure of what the allergens are. There are software systems available which can link information about recipes and items bought, in order to produce an automated list of allergen information, and many businesses find this useful.
- Create a system for dealing with specials and new dishes that includes working out and listing allergens.
- Create a simple procedure that can be consistently followed regarding customers with allergies. Have a member of staff that is in charge of safeguarding procedures and ensure that everyone on the team knows to report back to them when it comes to allergy enquiries.
How to prevent cross-contamination
- Wash all utensils and cookware in very hot water, and make sure that they are completely clean before sending them out to be used again. Food that is still present on utensils, even once they have gone through a dishwasher, may still cause a reaction in those severely allergic.
- Prepare allergen-free foods on separate chopping boards and work surfaces from those with allergens. Use disposable cloths as allergens can linger on reusable sponges etc.
- Wipe down work surfaces with soap and commercial cleaners.
- Mark allergen-free food clearly (the flag system is used in many restaurants and is a quick and simple way to show diners which meal is safe for those with allergies).
- If there is an error, do not pick allergens out of food and consider it to be safe (taking nuts out of a salad for example). Traces of the allergen left behind can cause a severe reaction, so a brand new meal needs to be prepared every time.
Our in-depth training course on allergen awareness is the best way to train your staff in this issue. The course lasts two hours and at the end participants are awarded a certificate.
To find out more this course, or any of our popular courses, please speak to our team by calling us on 01582 714 285 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.