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Briefing: Food information regulation one year on

Caterers have dealt well with new rules on allergen information – but there’s more work ahead to tackle a serious and growing problem. By Barry Moore.

Caterers are doing a decent job …

Broadly the contract catering industry is doing a decent good job in allergen management. This is mainly because most of these businesses have robust health and safety (H&S) departments and clients are also demanding, as part of their own H&S policy, that it’s written into the contract with penalties or termination for material breaches. As a result, contractors have a clearly defined duty of care to adhere to.

… but they could go further

The difference in just abiding by the rules and doing it well by going the extra mile is rooted in culture and the respective suppliers’ commitment to great food. Food manufacturers and retailers have rigid specifications, follow strict controls with sophisticated testing equipment and have menus and ingredients that rarely change. There is also good practice on show within the quality restaurant chain operators such as Pizza Express and Byron Hamburgers where detailed allergy checklists are provided upon request and teams are well versed; again these operators rarely change their menu and specification. I eat with confidence at these establishments with my daughter, who has a severe nut allergy.

It’s not easy though

The rest of the foodservice industry has a risk inherent in its operating model. Every day, fresh food is purchased, prepared, stored and served in an environment where cross-contamination has a much higher risk of occurring. Also, and importantly, menus and specifications will change daily – the daily special, for example.

And risks remain

The issues of shortages of skilled chefs, varying capabilities of operators and often tough commercial conditions are well documented. So the risk of a short cut or lack of training about allergens means that a customer who is severely allergic must always enter any establishment (even a regular one) with a heightened alertness to risk. So it is important to note that despite its critics, there are lots of positives from the changes to Food Information Regulation (FIR) and awareness has increased.

Collaborative approach to allergens

As an industry we need to do more by supporting every level of the food chain to create a sustainable model that ensures constant reduction of incidents, some of which have been fatal. The Anaphylaxis Campaign has recently set up a corporate food panel, with representatives from every area of the food industry, to help advise the charity on how it develops its tools and resources to support operators tackling this issue.

Be prepared

At Gather & Gather we prepared rigorously for the FIR law changes. From our board directors to kitchen and restaurant teams, we initiated an allergen education and awareness programme. We made it very clear to customers how to contact us to discuss their food allergies and any concerns they may have. We now have allergen management ingrained into our everyday operating standards – from daily menu briefings to regular audits. Our requirement to provide comprehensive allergen information has flowed down to our supply chain, where we need reassurances on all products that we source. That’s what we mean by the industry working together – we all have a duty of care.

Don’t fear the regulations

Our menu range has not changed significantly and we have not changed how our food is prepared – other than to minimise the risks of cross-contamination. What we have done is to instill into our culture the daily requirement to detail any freshly made item and have the allergen checklist completed and on hand with our teams in every outlet. We cannot guarantee no cross-contamination. However, we do a very good job in reassuring customers what allergens are

in a dish, what cooking techniques were used and what allergens are in the kitchen environment. This allows them to make an informed decision. When I eat out with my daughter this is the key information that we are looking for.

Interest in allergens will only increase

There is definitely an increase in the prevalence of people with allergies. Mintel research shows that 39% of the population say they avoid at least one food, while a survey of 5,000 shoppers published in January by BBC Good Food suggested that 17% believe they have an allergy or intolerance (though only half have been diagnosed). As a result, we are seeing more requests from customers looking for clarification that an allergen is not present. However, we are also seeing more customers with a dietary requirement, which can range from intolerances to fad diets where people are avoiding certain food types, sometimes on a short-term basis.

Fad diet or real intolerance?

This brings its own challenges, as catering operators need to clearly distinguish between a customer with a life-threatening allergy to dairy and one who just happens to be dieting and avoiding milk in their coffee. Both need managing, and understanding what is in the food we serve is a basic requirement in any good food operation, allergy or not. Within our corporate catering operations, customers with medically confirmed allergies will generally engage with our teams when they require clarification on allergens in specific products.

Resuming normal service

We get to know our affected customers, and look to make their dining experience as normal as possible – no one wants to feel like they have a “special need”. As a result we have an open dialogue with detailed allergen information available. And that is the key to managing allergens: constant vigilance and communication. The response to allergen management issues is a vital consideration for all foodservice providers. We need to get it right as lives are at stake.

Barry Moore is performance director at Gather & Gather and a trustee of the Anaphylaxis Campaign.