Business Challenge: Allergies and Allergens

With serious food allergies and allergens on the rise, getting your allergen information clear and correct for both customers and staff has never been more important. It’s also now a matter of legal compliance, since EU legislation now requires any food business offering foods to the final consumer (either packaged on the premises or non-packaged) to provide information about ingredients that are allergenic.

So we’re here to look at the key questions for your business, including:

What’s the law on allergies and allergens information?

You can read the Food Information Regulations 2014 here. This legislation came into force on July 14 2014, and it enables the enforcement of the EU law, Food Information to Consumers Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011.

It says that, for non-prepacked foods (including catering), allergen information must be made available to consumers on the presence of any of the major 14 allergens and sub-allergens, whether the allergen is an ingredient or used as a processing aid. It doesn’t mean that you have to provide a full ingredients list, only that the customer must be able to access information about the use of allergens, whether or not they have an allergy themselves. In the UK, this information can also be communicated orally to the customer, except in the case of distance selling. Where it’s not available as a written resource, clear signposts must be made for the customer, telling them where or whom to ask about the use of allergenic ingredients. The Food Standards Agency recommends that ‘to ensure that oral information is verifiable, ingredients information can be contained on a chart, in a recipe book or on ingredients information sheets, which staff can easily refer to.’

The legislation also applies to the nutrition labelling on foods that are sold pre-packed, even between catering businesses – so that means when you receive your provisions orders from your suppliers, the regulations apply to your stock items. When your ingredients are pre-packed (as they often are when you’re not using perishable produce like fruit and vegetables), there is a responsibility for manufacturers to ensure that allergenic processes and ingredients are now properly labelled.

What does the legislation mean in practice?

It enables local authorities to enforce the European Food Information to Consumers Regulation No 1169/2011 (FIC). This is mainly through the avenue of issuing improvement notices to offending food businesses if they contravene the food labelling policy. It will be a criminal offence not to comply with an improvement notice, and then a fine will be issued.

In England, responsibility for policy on nutrition labelling now rests with the Department of Health, but it’s the Food Standards Agency which leads on food labelling law enforcement where it relates to food safety.

Which food business do the Food Information Regulations apply to?

The FIR applies to all food catering businesses. If you’re confused, remember that it ALWAYS applies to:

  • Loose (non-prepacked) foods sold in place such as
    • Deli counters
    • Butchers
    • Bakeries
    • Fishmongers

If you’re a private individual selling occasional food at events such as village fetes and school fairs, the FIR 2014 doesn’t apply to you – unless you are doing it in the course of your business as a food business operator.

Why do you need to be aware of allergens and allergies?

The point is that it’s now actually the law to provide your customers with accurate information. This is set out in the legislation.

So when you are a high-volume, complex or multi-site caterer, you have a challenge on your hands to keep track of your allergen information across ingredients, dishes and menus, and to provide it to your customers in a clear and accessible way.

But aside from the legal mandate, the customer numbers involved are huge:

  • 2% of all adults have a food allergy
  • 8% of children have a food allergy
  • Each year in the UK, 10 people die from food-induced anaphylaxis
  • Since 1990, child hospital admissions for food-related anaphylaxis have risen 700%
  • With allergies running in families, the number of allergenic customers is only going to increase

What do customers want when it comes to allergy information?

Food allergy or food intolerant customers (FA/FIs) employ a large number of tactics when making choices about food safety when eating out. However, from the research, it’s clear that providing written allergen information helps to cement that you’re a trusted provider, and how you can actively improve the FA/FIs’ experience of eating out.

Here’s what the research has to say about customers’ experiences of allergen information:

‘[The third] rule of thumb for making food choices was located around assessments of how trusted sources of product information were. Establishing how much information providers were trusted was a key metric for deciding which foods could be safely consumed and which labels could be relied on.’ [1]

‘FA/FIs overwhelmingly favoured tangible, written information in the first instance; and adequate written information often led to an implicit trust in subsequent verbal information.’[2]

But it’s not just the information you provide: training staff on allergen awareness makes a huge difference to the customer’s experience:

‘The most helpful scenarios for eating out in restaurants were when staff were responsive and when the allergic consumer was recognised and known by restaurant staff.’ [3]

‘It is social processes that make for a positive eating experience in restaurants (e.g. being listened to, recognised and known by restaurant staff) rather than a simple technical communication of the likely presence or absence of allergens.’ [4]

‘Food providers can play a crucial role in meeting FA/FIs needs through the provision of clear written allergen information, increased allergen-awareness training for staff, and effective communication mechanisms between food preparation and serving areas. Alongside written information, our results indicate that staff use of simple, proactive face to face strategies to make enquiries and reassure customers, is favoured by FA/FIs.’ [5]

It’s therefore very clear that there’s a lot that food businesses can still do to improve the quality of the information they provide to FA customers, and so vastly improve FAs’ experience of dining out.

What does software do to help?

Most catering businesses wouldn’t want to risk causing a FA customer’s hospitalisation and, worst case scenario – death, by not providing accurate allergen information. It’s a tough challenge – it can be a massive job in a busy kitchen to keep track of up-to-date allergen information for a range of dishes, let alone your whole menu!

Thankfully, help is at hand in the form of Saffron software, which provides a useful feature to help both staff and FA customers, taking the effort out of allergen tagging and manual updates when ingredients or suppliers change.

  • Search for a dish to see allergen updatesAs we know, suppliers change, and sometimes ingredients in stock items can change – having a dangerous effect on FA customers, so you need real time updates on the allergenic profiles of all the dishes on your menu. As FA customers like to frequent the same trusted food providers, and the dishes which they judge to be the safest options, they’ll need to know any allergenic changes to your dishes, and the Allergy module, working in partnership with the customer-facing Allergy Web Portal can let your staff and customers search for their desired dish to see any allergen updates to the constituent ingredients or processes.
  • Reduce staff miscommunicationBoth the Allergy module and the Allergy Web Portal work in tandem to provide staff and customers with reliable, accurate, real-time information on the use of potential allergens in each dish. With confidence in staff knowledge and communication a key factor in FAs decision-making, this has never been more crucial. Your staff can refer to the Allergy Web Portal, and even present the Portal directly to customers, if they want to check the information for themselves. What’s more, the Document Management module can assist with staff training and the dispersal of essential information on processes and procedures.
  • Stock itemsThe FIR 2014 also concerns pre-packed foods – and that means a lot of your stock items from which you construct your dishes. Manufacturers and suppliers have to list allergens on pre-packed ingredients, and these can be accounted for in the relevant databases. Supplier information can be imported from their databases into yours, and allergenic ingredients and processes are tagged so you can see the allergenic profile of each stock item. Perfect for when you are planning to make a selection of allergen-free dish that your FA customers can safely enjoy!

Don’t forget to watch our videos on how to use Saffron for your allergens challenges:

What next?

If that sounds useful for your business, give us a call on +44 (0)114 281 6060 or complete the contact form..

[1] Barnett, J., Leftwich, J., Muncer, K., Raats, M., Shepherd, R., Ogden, J., Lucas, J. S., Grimshaw, K. and Gowland, H., 2011. Understanding the food choice reasoning of nut allergic consumers. Other. Food Standards Agency.

[2] Begen, F.Barnett, J. and Roy, D., 2016. Consumer Preferences for Written and Oral Information about Allergens When Eating Out. PloS ONE, 11 (5).

[3] Barnett, J., Leftwich, J., Muncer, K., Raats, M., Shepherd, R., Ogden, J., Lucas, J. S., Grimshaw, K. and Gowland, H., 2011. Understanding the food choice reasoning of nut allergic consumers. Other. Food Standards Agency.

[4] Barnett, J., Leftwich, J., Muncer, K., Raats, M., Shepherd, R., Ogden, J., Lucas, J. S., Grimshaw, K. and Gowland, H., 2011. Understanding the food choice reasoning of nut allergic consumers. Other. Food Standards Agency.

[5] Begen, F., Barnett, J. and Roy, D., 2016. Consumer Preferences for Written and Oral Information about Allergens When Eating Out. PloS ONE, 11 (5).

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