If you were to take a poll of 30 random people on the street, it is likely the percentage of them who have an allergy of some description would be fairly high. We live in an age where, if we don’t have an allergy ourselves, we know several others who do. Allergies and intolerances seem to be a modern day phenomenon and are on the rise. Whilst a lot of people suffer mildly, for some an allergic reaction can be absolutely fatal!
There are all sorts of allergies relating to different food groups and it is imperative that, as a business, you are aware of allergens, how to store them properly and how to avoid cross contamination. Somebody with a severe allergy to nuts, for example, could go into anaphylactic shock just through ingesting something that has simply been through the same processer. As a producer or supplier, this could mean that you would be at fault and, in the age in which we now live where litigation cases are at an all-time high, lengthy court proceedings could ensue, something you would wish to avoid at all costs. In fact, just this week, two men have been in the news charged with the manslaughter of a teenage girl who died from a severe allergic reaction after consuming one of their takeaway meals which contained nuts. They were charged with ‘failing to discharge general health and safety duty to a person other than an employee’.
Businesses need to be scrupulous in their handling of allergens and it is crucial that the relevant information about what products contain or could potentially contain is communicated clearly so that consumers are not left in any doubt. In fact, when a food allergy sufferer suffers an allergic reaction, it is commonly down to two things, namely, incorrect labelling of a product, or poor communication between staff and customers.
Storage and labelling of foods containing allergens
For those businesses in the catering line, food stuffs containing allergens should be kept in separate, waterproof containers and clearly labelled, preferably with a brightly coloured sticker or icon so that it is immediately apparent to your staff when they are sourcing ingredients for items they are producing. It is advisable to store them away from other non-allergenic items and have a separate storage area so that you minimise any opportunity for cross contamination. Moreover, staff need to proactively look for and be made aware of hidden ingredients within a product. For example, if producing a shepherd’s pie, using Worcestershire sauce, staff must communicate that it will contain fish, as anchovies are one of the main ingredients used in Worcestershire sauce.
For those businesses which are packaging and labelling products for sale, there are clear guidelines on alerting consumers to any potential allergens. Those items which contain an allergen should be highlighted in bold in the ingredients list. For example, a mars bar would indicate that it contains milk chocolate. This is required by law and is considered sufficient warning for the consumer. There are 14 different allergen types about which you are required to notify consumers and it is vital that you are aware of them all. You can find them listed on the Food Standards Agency website.
Cleaning of machinery/equipment/surfaces after using or packaging products containing allergens
Some food producers or packagers might have a dedicated allergen-free product line or area to avoid any cross contamination but this might not be possible for every company. For most businesses, it will be a case of ensuring there are adequate cleaning processes in place. Machinery and equipment should be taken apart where possible and all items thoroughly cleaned to remove all trace. Every surface should also be cleaned as meticulously. If this is not possible, the Food Standards Agency recommends evaluating the risk and using advisory labelling or notification to the consumer if necessary.
Remember, it isn’t just equipment and machinery that pose a risk. Even clothing might be a hazard as allergens could be transferred this way. You should ensure your staff wear correct clothing or protective covering where necessary.
And, of course, one of the most important and simplest processes is to make sure you and your staff wash your hands thoroughly after being in contact with any allergenic product to avoid cross contamination.
Ongoing training for staff
Your business needs to show that all your staff have received adequate instruction regarding allergens and there should be a clear audit trail of training records. The more information your employees are given, the better equipped you will be to avoid any catastrophes.
We are able to offer training at your premises to assist you in ensuring you follow best practice and put in place procedures which will help you streamline this aspect of your business. Please contact us if you would like to find out more or would like any help with training.