July 21, 2017
Allergen labelling & training for food handlers
In the UK, around 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children suffer from a food allergy. If your business manufactures, sells or serves food products containing any of the 14 allergens, you must communicate this to your consumers clearly.
Our guide will take you through some of the key points on allergens, including what food businesses are obliged to do by law and why this legislation exists, as well as how and when to label your food products. There is also additional information regarding online food allergy training and where you can source this from.
Additionally, you can download our free Food Allergens Poster - which can be displayed in your premises for staff to consult if they are unsure of the 14 allergens.
What is an allergen?
Food allergens are naturally-occurring substances in food that, whilst safe for the majority of consumers, can provoke an abnormal response in some people, which is triggered by their immune system.
Although almost all foods are capable of provoking an allergic reaction, there are 14 ingredients that cause 90% of allergic reactions. These are:
Crustaceans (e.g. lobster, prawns)
Molluscs (e.g. oysters, mussels, squid)
Tree nuts (almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts or Queensland nuts)
Gluten (present in cereals such as wheat, spelt, rye, barley, oats etc)
Celery and celeriac
Lupin (a legume - lupin beans are often found in Mediterranean cuisine and also used to make flour and protein).
Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (when concentration is more than ten parts per million. Present in a variety of products including dried fruit, wine and cider)
In the eye of the general public, some of the above ingredients are already heavily associated with allergic reactions - for example peanuts. Awareness of gluten-based intolerances and allergies, as well as Coeliac disease, is on the rise and consequently many food manufacturing and hospitality businesses are catering for these consumers with free-from product ranges.
Why are there laws relating to allergens?
The main reason for legislation relating to allergens in food is to protect consumers who suffer from a food allergy. Often, the presence of an allergen in food products is not immediately obvious, for example sulphur dioxide and sulphates present in dried fruit. Demanding that food businesses declare allergens allows consumers to make more informed decisions about the food they eat.
According to the DEFRA food Statistics Pocketbook 2016, the percentage of contamination incidents caused by allergens more than doubled from 6% in 2013 to 14% in 2015.
The number of people with food allergies has risen drastically in the past few decades, although the reason for this is unclear.
Every year around ten people in the UK die from allergic reactions due to undeclared allergens in food.
Number of Allergen Incidents 2013-15 (FSA Annual incident report 2015)
Allergen law for restaurants and caterers
Since the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC) came into effect, all businesses selling and serving loose foods must inform consumers of products containing any of the 14 allergens and specify which ones are present. Before December 2014 it was not mandatory for these types of business to provide this information. However, now they are obliged by law to do so, it’s vital for food restaurants and caterers to be transparent about any allergens in the food they serve. This includes educating restaurant staff on any allergens they need to make consumers aware of.
Failure to adhere to this law incurs a £5,000 fine, although in particular cases it is ip to magistrates to decide on the fine.
However, when severe or even fatal allergic reactions occur as a result of non-compliance, the consequences can be extremely serious for the business owner. In May 2016, restaurant owner Mohammed Zaman was found guilty of manslaughter and jailed for 6 years. Paul Wilson, a customer with a peanut allergy, went into anaphylactic shock and died after eating a chicken tikka masala from Zaman’s restaurant, despite making his allergy clear at the time of ordering. Zaman had switched almond powder for a cheaper ground nut mix (which contained peanuts) and employed untrained, illegal restaurant staff in an effort to cut costs.
Unlike pre-packaged food, where labels are used, food served in restaurants, pubs and other eateries require a direct approach to inform customers about allergens. This can be done in a number of ways, including:
Listing any allergens present under each meal on the menu.
Training staff so they know exactly what allergens are in each meal, and can relay this information back to customers.
Prompting customers to ask staff about meals with allergens through messaging in your menu or on your specials board.
Although the EU FIC regulation was brought in to protect allergy-suffering customers, many restaurants have voiced strong opposition to the law, stating it is hurting ‘spontaneity, creativity and innovation’.
Allergen law for manufacturers
Food manufacturers also must abide by the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation and are required to include allergens in the list of ingredients on pre-packed food. However, manufacturers have been subject to legislation like this for a lot longer than restaurants or caterers. Rules on labelling in European Directives 2003/89/EC and 2006/142/EC demand that all ingredients are listed, meaning consumers with allergies could make informed decisions about the food they buy.
On products that do not require a list of ingredients, for example a bottle of wine, manufacturers need to state what, if any, allergens are present using a ‘Contains’ label.
The introduction of of the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation did impact the way food manufacturers declare allergens. ‘Allergy box’ labelling that many manufacturers favoured was outlawed, with the legislation stating that all allergens should appear in the ingredients list and be emphasised. Allergens must stand out from the other ingredients using font, style or background - although it is up to individual food businesses how they do this (commonly you will see allergens listed in bold font).
Processed versions of allergens used as an ingredient in a product also need to appear with the allergen they contain listed. So, for example, if a manufactured product contains whey, this should be labelled as “Whey (milk)”.
For items where the product name clearly alludes to the allergen it contains, for example a bag of peanuts, allergens are not required by law to be labelled a second time (although many manufacturers still do this).
Additionally, it is worth noting that manufacturers with ‘Free-from’ products must rigorously control the production of these and check that anything else coming into contact with the product (such as packaging) does not contain the specified allergen.
When should precautionary allergen labelling be used?
Whilst manufacturers are not legally obligated to state if a food may accidentally contain traces of an allergen, many choose to label products with warnings so consumers are well-informed.
Phrases commonly used to do this include:
‘Made on equipment that also processes...’
‘Made in a factory that also handles…’
If manufacturers believe there is a real risk of a product being cross-contaminated with an allergen they can also use the phrase ‘not suitable for someone with … allergy’. However, this kind of labelling should only be used if, after a thorough risk assessment, manufacturers are certain the cross-contamination risk cannot be eliminated.
Staff awareness is key in preventing incidents of cross-contamination and undertaking some sort of allergy training is highly recommended (though not obligatory by law).
Allergen training for food handlers
In hospitality and manufacturing businesses, as well as food-to-go departments in retailers, it is essential that customers with food allergies are kept safe and can consume food with confidence. A key part of making this happen is competent, well-trained staff who are aware of the 14 allergens and how to prevent cross-contamination.
Although many standard training courses, such as Level 2 Food Safety and Hygiene, cover how to control food safety hazards, these modules very rarely go into detail about allergens. However, there is specific online food allergy training with CPD certification available which, at a low cost, will make your staff aware of the 14 allergens, the EU’s FIC Regulation, how to prevent cross-contamination with allergens and how to provide allergen information to customers for unwrapped food (i.e. in a hospitality setting). Staff will also receive a certificate to indicate they have completed the training.
Your staff are essential for upholding the laws around allergens. Untrained staff who are oblivious to the dangers of particular ingredients could land your business in serious trouble resulting in fines, closure and even incarceration.
Food Allergens Poster
We’ve created a useful food allergens poster re-iterating the 14 allergens and tips for avoiding cross-contamination. Perfect for displaying in your premises as a useful reminder. Download for free here or by clicking the preview below.
The Food Standards Agency - Allergy: what to consider when labelling food
The Caterer - Allergen legislation: all you need to know
Allergy UK - The Allergy Aware Scheme
Appetite Learning - Online Food Allergy Training & Certificate (CPD certification)