If you’re a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, hotel, or any other type of food and drink businesses, you’re about to enter one of your busiest times of the year. Unfortunately, that also means you’re about to enter one of your highest-risk periods as well.
Over the festive period, food safety-related allegations, including food poisoning and allergen related incidents, increase by up to 400%!
It has been scientifically proven that the incidence of food allergies, food intolerances and coeliac disease are on the rise. In light of recent high profile food allergy-related incidents it makes good business sense to implement measures to protect yourself, your staff and ultimately your business should a problem occur.
One single incident could result in court action, heavy fines, imprisonment, civil action, irreparable reputational and brand damage, a poor food hygiene rating, increased insurance costs and the cost of retraining to name but a few of the bad things that can happen!
Step 1. Training
Train all staff in allergen awareness and control. Include all staff who have some input into the journey of the food, ranging from the kitchen porter to the food business operator/owner and everyone else in between.
If your staff have up to date qualification, then this may be a case of a simple in-house refresher. but make sure your training is robust enough. Unfortunately, some training currently on the market simply doesn’t go into enough detail. The thoroughness of training needs to be mapped against staff work activities and responsibilities. For example, a basic two-hour allergen awareness course wouldn’t be suitable for a head chef or business operator/owner who requires enough knowledge to put together allergen policies and procedures, as well as produce a detailed allergen file and organise and implement allergen control measures into the kitchen or bar areas.
Step 2. Communication
Good practice in allergen control dictates that businesses must be proactive when it comes to finding out about customers food allergies and intolerances, rather than waiting for your customers to approach you. This is even more important over the Christmas period as you have more customers through your door.
The information you provide must be easily visible and clear, whether this comes in the form of signage asking customers to speak to a member of staff to highlight their allergies or clear information contained within a food or drinks menu.
Your business should have robust written protocols in place for when a customer indicates a problem food. One method is that these customers are signposted to a named member of staff who has received more in-depth allergen training, this staff member will then take responsibility for that customer’s service to ensure their safety and comfort.
Businesses should note that many high-profile allergen incidents have occurred due to a miscommunication. In many types of catering businesses, the food allergy sufferer does not always necessarily speak directly to the person handling or preparing their food, there is often another person in the chain of communication such as the front of house, bar or serving staff. Mistakes can easily occur unless a clear and well-understood line of clear communication can be established, these protocols should be written down and all staff trained in them.
Step 3. Allergen file
All catering businesses must put together an allergen file, sometimes called the allergen matrix. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet document or something more advanced such as a tablet-based computer programme such as this one offered by Menu Guru. However, it must identify and list the presence of all 14 Key allergens contained within each named product or meal as laid out in the Food Information Regulations.
The 14 key allergens reflect the foods which currently cause 95% of all allergen/intolerance problems within the European Union. You should never forget about the other 5 %, however, they are harder to identify and manage as they could be made up of any other food.
Allergen files should also indicate ingredients that “may contain” a key allergen because of possible cross-contamination within a manufacturer’s food process. Be sure to check the labels of a food product contained within your recipe.
Step 4. Practical control measures
Cross-contamination is the main culprit when it comes to allergen incidents, therefore you should adopt a “farm to fork” approach when considering the control of allergens.
It all starts with your suppliers, who need to be reputable and have robust food safety management systems and procedures in place themselves in order to supply a safe product. Don’t be afraid to question and audit your suppliers to ensure you’re receiving a safe product and service.
The next stage is receipt and storage. Delivery checks should ensure that packaging is intact, major allergens are stored in a safe manner and that all supplied products have intact, clear and legally compliant labelling. There should also be an agreed system with your supplier that if an alternative product is supplied, then all new allergen information is communicated to you in advance. This new information must then be included in your allergen file and communicated to staff.
Stored products should be contained safely by appropriate types of packaging or in tightly lidded containers. If foods are decanted, then original information regarding allergenic ingredients must be retained in order to avoid accidental contamination. How major allergens are stored in regard to foods being above or below other foods should be considered where possible. Your business should ideally use commercially available allergen labels specifically made for the task of identifying key allergens within a product.
Step 5. Site layout and food preparation
At Christmas, you’ll be busy and cooking for more people than usual. This means the space you usually have to prepare food will feel much smaller and you’ll be working closely together. When it comes to preparation of food, consider how you will be able to prepare the food safely for an allergenic customer in regard to cross-contamination. Think about the following:
- Where will the food be prepared, ideally keep separated dedicated areas
- Wash hands before, after and in between each process.
- Clean food preparation surfaces, before, during and after, consider what chemicals and materials you will use to achieve this safely.
- Utensils and equipment that you will use and how you will clean them to avoid cross-contamination.
- Clothing you wear, consider disposable aprons.
- Waste products including major allergens, how you dispose of them.
- Spills of major allergens, how you will clean up to avoid problems.
- The prepared product, how will you keep this separated and safe until it can be taken to the customer.
Each of your businesses will be slightly different, so each site will need to be considered individually to ensure that mistakes do not occur.
Finally…… don’t forget that drinks are classified as food. Your bar fridge or bar area may hold products such as red wine (sulphites), milk, cream, pasteurised egg whites, Worcester sauce (anchovy), soya milk, almond milk, nut-based syrups and possibly other products that contain one of the 14 key allergens.
Ensure that allergen controls are implemented in bar areas and that all bar and waiting staff have received allergen training.
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Written by Lewis Lawless (Head of hospitality )
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There are 14 major allergens which need to be communicated to the customer, either on a label or through provided information such as menus. Find out more in this article.