Allergen control in food has received a lot of media attention of late, with even small amounts of allergens potentially triggering allergic reactions, and in extreme cases causing anaphylaxis which can be fatal. In November 2018 both the owner and manager at the Royal Spice Takeaway in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire were jailed for the manslaughter of a 15-year-old girl who suffered an allergic reaction to a meal.
It is therefore vital that food businesses take their duty of care seriously and understand the day-to-day allergen management systems and processes to be applied.
All food businesses, including schools where catering is provided, must comply with the allergen information rules set in the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation and The Food Information Regulations 2014, that is, to provide allergen information to the consumer, handle and manage food allergens adequately and train staff about allergens.
Provision of Allergen Information
If you provide catering facilities at your school, you must be aware that it is a legal requirement to provide information to customers (including teaching staff, students, and parents) if any foods that you supply contain these 14 prescribed allergens.
The 14 allergens:
12) Soya / Soy
14) Sulphur Dioxide
As food is made directly for the customer within your school cafe or dining hall, you should provide written information about allergen content of meals, and you can do this via a menu or an information board. When dealing with young or vulnerable children e.g. within SEN or Primary Schools, you will also need to make arrangements to communicate this information out to parents. Display signage indicating that customers can ask for allergen information; this is particularly important when providing food to adults such as teachers and visitors.
Although not currently a legal requirement, an allergen matrix is a commonly used aid to list which of the 14 major allergens are contained in a dish. It can then be referred to when a customer requests allergen information. If used, it is essential this is updated each time the menu, supplier or ingredients change. If you are supplied with prepared food products it is advisable to request allergen information from your supplier, which you should then check is accurate and have available for customers and food handlers.
Beware! Do not overlook products simply because you assume they won’t contain an allergen; they can be hidden in all sorts of ingredients. Always check if unsure, for example by referring to the ingredient list on packaging or product specifications.
Remember to include items such as sauces, custards, spreads and other toppings on your allergen matrix.
Cross-contamination of allergens can occur during storage or preparation of food, including from contaminated equipment, storage containers, crockery, hands or cleaning cloths. You can prevent this by:
- Detailing how allergens are managed in your food safety management system and ensuring all staff understand allergen control and the procedures to follow.
- Instructing all employees to check the ingredients of raw products if in doubt.
- Always using the most up to date allergen information from suppliers.
- Checking the most up to date allergen documents are in use and that older versions are removed from site.
- Never substituting ingredients in a food for alternative ingredients (as they may contain allergens).
- Ensuring there is good communication between the customer and staff when obtaining the allergen information. Never guess the allergen content of foods, and if you are not sure, always check.
- Handwashing at regular intervals, particularly after handling allergens, and always before handling a dish for someone with allergies.
- Storing foods containing allergens in airtight containers with clear labels stating their content.
- Covering foods containing allergens whilst they are on display, and positioning them so they do not fall into other foods.
- Planning the work area to ensure there is no risk of cross-contamination when handling plates and ingredients, particularly around open saladette chill units.
- Cleaning and disinfecting equipment and utensils after they have been used for products containing allergens to remove residues.
- Ensuring clothing is kept clean to prevent cross-contamination during food handling.
NB: Students may not always draw attention to their allergies at the point of service. Make sure that recipes are strictly followed, menus are kept up to date, and allergen information is easy to find.
School Allergen Management Tips
- Prepare the menu for the term and ensure that you include the allergen content of all meals.
- Review supplier information for all ingredients and highlight the 14 allergens on your allergen matrix. Don’t forget to look at toppings for jacket potatoes, puddings, salad bars, and items such as sauces, custards, and spreads used in sandwiches and baguettes.
- Train staff on allergen management within your school. Ensure that they know not to adjust recipes, by substituting or replacing items.
- Communicate with suppliers and ask for immediate updates on any changes to foods.
- Publish the menu to your School Website. This enables parents to see the upcoming meals and plan accordingly.
- Gather information from parents regarding student allergies and intolerances and record on individual care plans. With parental consent, communicate with your catering team; this is particularly important within the primary school environment.
- Implement a School Allergen Policy.
Within the kitchen:
- Check deliveries to ensure the product that you ordered is the product that has been delivered.
- Spoons and other utensils used for ingredients containing allergens (e.g. sesame, fish, cereals containing gluten) should not be used for other ingredients.
- A clean and disinfected chopping board and knife should be used when preparing a dish for someone with an allergy.
- Chopping boards should be in good condition and not heavily scored.
- Store those products containing gluten, for example flour, breadcrumbs, in airtight, labelled containers preferably on the bottom shelf in dry storage to prevent contamination.
- When you are preparing a meal that does not contain a certain food, ensure that you change the cooking oil as well, for example, if food is cooked in oil that has been used to cook prawns, this could cause a reaction in someone who is allergic to crustaceans.
- When washing hands or equipment after handling allergens, you should be mindful that you may contaminate sinks and taps. You may need to clean and disinfect the sink and other “touchpoints”.
All staff should be aware of their role in controlling allergens: from food handlers to front of house staff who need to provide accurate allergen information to customers. All employees should complete training on allergen awareness. They must be familiar with the School’s Allergen Policy so that they are able to follow safety procedures.
Southalls Top Tip
If you make a dish from scratch, you will know what ingredients go into it. However you must remember to consider what you use:
- To cook the dish
- To thicken a sauce
- As a topping or garnish
- In a salad dressing
It is very important to check the ingredients of anything you buy in ready made, such as desserts, pies or breads. Don’t rely on your knowledge of product ingredients. Foods that can cause severe allergic reactions can turn up in products where you don’t expect them, for example, celery and mustards in sauces, nuts in pesto and breads, and soya in vegetarian products.