Finding allergens a challenge?

With food allergies reportedly on the rise, understanding the latest food legislation has never been so important. Here, RSSL's Jessica Sage takes a look at the latest developments.


Originally published in the early August 2019 issue of The Caterer.

With food allergies reportedly on the rise, understanding the latest food legislation and which safeguards to put in place has never been so important. Jessica Sage, Food Safety and Quality Consultant at Reading Scientific Services Ltd (RSSL), takes a look at the latest developments and considers what steps businesses need to take if selling foods loose.

Food allergies affect around two million people in the UK, and when people suffering with intolerances and coeliac disease are also factored in, that figure is even higher.

More worrying still, hospital admissions for serious allergic reactions are also on the increase, with the riskiest eating situations being those where the allergy sufferer is eating out of home. This represents a serious challenge, not only for those living with the conditions, but also the businesses who need to supply these consumers with food that is safe. Given that food allergies can be severe enough to cause fatal reactions, it is vital that information is made available to enable sufferers to assess the risk and avoid the foods they need to.

Regulatory framework

Although legislation around the provision of allergen information has been in place for many years, it initially only covered prepacked foods. This changed with the introduction of the Food Information to Consumers Regulation in 2011, which requires allergen information to be provided not only for prepacked foods, but also foods sold loose. It means that all food service operators, such as restaurants, canteens, school caterers and delicatessens, need to be able to provide this information to their customers.

For prepacked foods, there are clearly defined criteria in place detailing how information relating to allergens should be declared on-pack. For foods sold loose, however, the situation is less defined; businesses must provide the information, but it can be in written or verbal form. There must also be clear signage to inform the customer how to acquire the allergen information, which itself must be “accurate, consistent and verifiable.”

Attention has now turned to foods sold prepacked for direct sale (PPDS) which, until recently, were not required to label allergens on-pack – but this is set to change with the introduction of Natasha’s Law.

Scheduled to be enforced by summer 2021, this new piece of legislation is the result of a UK-wide consultation by Defra and the FSA following the tragic death of Natasha EdnanLaperouse, who suffered a fatal allergic reaction to sesame that was intentionally present in a Pret A Manger baguette. Natasha’s Law specifically states that all foods sold PPDS must carry full ingredient listing, with allergens emphasised.

Key considerations

Food business operators are clearly focused on giving the customer a positive eating experience by providing great tasting, safe food. Having robust systems in place to ensure this is achieved for every customer will build trust, and ensure they return again and again. So what steps need to be taken?
In our experience, clear communication is fundamental – both in terms of the customer and the team working within the food business. For example:

  • Ensure the customer is aware of how to obtain information about allergens. If you are relying on them to ask, then it is a legal requirement to make sure clear signage is visible that directs them to do so.

  • Get a clear understanding from the customer exactly which ingredients need to be avoided. Then decide if it is achievable.

  • If you can meet the customer’s needs, transfer their specific requirements to the kitchen, service teams and back to the customer without any ambiguity. The worst thing that can happen is for a consumer to be delivered the wrong meal or for an incorrect ingredient to be used in the preparation of a meal, so controls around this are critical.

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