In reaction to the new allergen regulations introduced in December last year, you’ll have read the outcry in the media, especially from top chefs and food business owners:
“There’s too much red tape!”
“These regulations are stifling our creativity and spontaneity in cooking!”
“We can never train our staff to comply with all this extra paperwork!”
But are these claims true?
Happily, no! Feedback I’ve received from food businesses is that “It’s easy once you know how!” and once staff are trained. The Food Information for Consumers Regulations require you to flag up any of the 14 allergens such as peanuts, milk and mustard, that are ingredients in any food you sell – and these rules apply to all food businesses, including bakeries, delis, restaurants, burger-vans, and cafes, as well as care homes, prisons, and hospitals.
So, how can you do it?
First up, you must ensure your staff receive proper training, for example, completing Skillsoft’s Online Food Allergy Awareness course2 (which I helped to develop). We designed this course to bring training straight to your workplace in a readily accessible form, and I must say that I’m impressed with how trainees have converted theory into practice:
“We created a computer database of all our recipes, with all the allergens clearly labelled,” says one university executive chef. “Then there’s an allergen chart for each day’s menu, for our customers to see.” The information is taken from the ingredient specifications from the suppliers so there is complete traceability.
A chef at a small New Forest pub uses a manual chart from the Food Standards Agency to tick off allergens for daily “Specials” that he cooks from scratch.
“It’s not difficult – we’re professional chefs, so of course we know what ingredients we’re using!” he explains. “We cook from fresh and vary our dishes all the time, and it’s not as though we can’t use allergenic ingredients – all we’re asked to do is to make a note of the allergens we do use, so we can let our customers know. It takes about ten seconds per dish and it’s as simple as that.” The chart (dated and named) is passed to front of house to inform customers, and is later kept as part of the business’s due diligence records.
Is there anything else you need to do to comply with the regulations?
Well, yes. Every member of staff needs to be aware of their duties, especially about giving accurate allergen information (“never guess” is the mantra), and you must let your customers know how they can find out about the allergens found in the food you’re selling. So you’ll need clear signposting, such as a notice saying, “Allergens advice: please speak to our staff, and see our allergen file by the till” and information on your website (if you have one). The key thing is that you can give accurate spoken and written information.
In the kitchen, staff must be trained in how to keep allergenic ingredients segregated until they are used, and this includes using labelled, airtight containers. Special colour-coded allergen stickers are available from wholesalers for you to attach to food you’ve made, such as ready-to-eat wrapped sandwiches or pies.
So, are there any advantages to complying with new regulations, apart from (obviously) avoiding fines of up to £5,000 for every contravention and possible prison sentences? Yes, it seems that doing a good job is great for business!
“It’s awesome when are chefs are so enthusiastic that they offer to cook you something special to accommodate your allergies” says a customer, who suffers multiple food allergies. “I’m so used to being told I can only have a jacket potato and a bit of lettuce, that when I’m given a real choice, I certainly shout about it to my friends! It really stands out when staff are well-trained and knowledgeable.” The Free From Eating Out Awards give food businesses recognition for making an extra effort to provide food that is free from named allergens, and holders of these awards are becoming favourites for many customers.
Around 2 million people in the UK suffer allergies, and if an allergic customer eats food that you’ve labelled wrongly, they could suffer a sudden and terrifying allergic reaction leading to anaphylaxis and even death. A July report from the Royal Society for Public Health shows that, unfortunately, two-thirds of takeaways sampled failed to provide allergy information in the right way, so they’re putting customers at risk. The bottom line is that the regulations were introduced to help you save lives.
About Susan Alexander
Susan is a Chartered Scientist, Chartered Biologist, science author, auditor, subject matter expert and trainer, specialising in public health subjects, particularly food safety, allergen management and HACCP. She particularly enjoys demystifying subjects that are thought to be difficult by teaching in a way that makes everything clear and straight-forward!
 Food allergen labelling and information requirements under the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation No. 1169/2011. Food Standards Agency. https://www.food.gov.uk/science/allergy-intolerance
 EU FIC regulations on food labelling. Food Standards Agency. https://www.food.gov.uk/science/allergy-intolerance/label/labelling-changes
 Allergy information and fast food takeaways. Royal Society for Public Health. July 2015. https://www.rsph.org.uk/en/policy-and-projects/areas-of-work/allergies.cfm