Know the Score on Allergen Rules

I was really pleased to see my latest piece on allergens published in the Scottish Licensed Trade News this week.  I have put the text of the article below together with some supplementary information and useful links.

The requirements of these regulations for caterers seem to be causing a lot of unnecessary confusion due to many people and organisations misinterpreting what needs to be done, in particular, muddling the requirements for prepacked and non-prepacked foods.

I have covered some of these topics previously although think they are worth repeating as there are still so much misinformation regarding the regulations.  In fact, I saw a piece only this week that was produced by an organisation claiming to support small businesses, which stated the regulations required every staff member to learn all ingredients of every dish, and that these ingredients must also be listed on menus.  This is absolutely not the case and the requirements for caterers providing non-prepacked food are explained further below.

The regulations have been in force since 13 December 2014 and while some businesses have implemented comprehensive measures to meet requirements, many have yet to get started.  If you haven’t yet taken steps to comply, you need to act now.

Myth – you need to list all the ingredients of each dish on the menu.

The requirement to list ingredients only applies to prepacked food and therefore is unlikely to apply to the majority of caterers serving meals, as they usually provide food to the consumer without packaging.  The information that must be provided for non-prepacked food is whether one or more of the 14 allergens listed at Annex II of the Regulations have been purposely added to the dish (don’t forget salads, side orders and garnishes).  Information can be provided on the menu although can also be provided in other ways, for example orally by staff.

Myth – I don’t need to do anything as I already highlight gluten free and dairy free items on my menu.

There can be little doubt that this type of information is meeting a growing consumer demand, however, be aware that gluten and dairy are NOT the allergens listed in the regulations.  Furthermore you are required to identify whether an allergen is present, not identify foods free from allergens.

In the case of gluten the regulations require you to identify the cereal containing gluten (you must specify which cereal), and in the case of dairy people will usually be referring to milk.  Highlighting gluten would fall under Voluntary Information and is not a legal requirement.

Pay careful attention to using “gluten free” as it is defined by law.  Even if you are purchasing ingredients that are free from gluten, it is highly unlikely they will technically be “gluten free” by the time they reach the consumer, if they are being processed in an environment where gluten-containing ingredients are also being processed.  A more accurate term may be “no gluten-containing ingredients”.

Myth – I am not sure what allergens are in some of my dishes and so I have used a “May Contain” statement to cover everything.

The regulations make an important distinction between allergens that have been purposely added to a dish, and allergens that may be in dish for example through cross contamination.  The regulations only require information to be provided about allergens that have been purposely added to the dish.  You need to be specific about which allergens are present and the information cannot be provided using the term “may contain”.

For some people only very small amounts of an allergen are required to trigger allergic reactions, levels which could be reached as a result of cross contamination.  You may choose to additionally inform people about possible cross contamination risks by providing a “may contains” statement.  However, this also constitutes Voluntary Information and is not mandatory.  Of course you must continue to ensure you take appropriate measures to control cross contamination, which is a fundamental requirement of producing safe food.

Pitfall – Drinks

Don’t forget your drinks!  However, unlike most dishes, there are likely to be at least some items that are intended to be sold on to the consumer in their packaging (prepacked) and therefore the labelling should already comply.  Examples may be bottled or canned products.  Note that the regulations have different requirements for prepacked food.  If in doubt, check the Regulations and contact your suppliers.

If you are selling non-prepacked drinks such as draught beers, wine by the glass or spirits, allergen information must be provided as outlined above.

What next?

Still not sure where to start?  Firstly check the Food Standards Agency (FSA) website and discuss the requirements with your Environmental Health Officer.  Make sure you understand how the regulations apply to your business before investing time and money in undertaking potentially costly activities such as producing new menus and staff training.

There are also some excellent sources of information and training available including Allergy Action who offers a joint award with REHIS.  Liz delivers this award in addition to offering training and consultancy services specialising in implementing practical measures to meet the requirements of legislation.  For further information see her website.

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