What You Need To Know About Food Allergens and How To Control Them

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In this blog, I’m taking a look at food allergens and how to prevent allergenic contamination. Get it wrong and it can cost lives.

My passion is to ensure I give the very best information to help you provide the very best service. So, how do you provide allergen information? How do you keep your customers safe?

If you work with food you have a responsibility to ensure that food does not cause harm to your customers. When it comes to allergies, food that is safe for one person to eat may be unsafe for another.

Even the smallest traces of an allergen in food can cause an allergic reaction. These reactions can range from mild to life-threatening.

Remember, customers with food allergies are putting their trust in you. You need to ensure that you provide clear allergen information and that their food is safe for them to eat. This is a major responsibility.

What are allergenic contaminants?

Allergenic contaminants are proteins in foods that cause abnormal immune responses. While these only affect certain people, the outcomes can be very severe.

There are many ingredients that consumers may be allergic to or have an intolerance to. But there are 14 allergens that you must declare as allergens by law.

What Are The 14 allergens?

The 14 allergens are:

  1. Celery
  2. Cereals containing gluten (such as barley and oats)
  3. Crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters)
  4. Eggs
  5. Fish
  6. Lupin
  7. Milk
  8. Molluscs (such as mussels and oysters)
  9. Mustard
  10. Tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts)
  11. Peanuts
  12. Sesame seeds
  13. Soya
  14. Sulphur dioxide and Sulphites (if the sulphur dioxide and sulphites are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million)

If any of the above are present in your final product you must tell your customers. This also includes any additives, processing aids or other substances used. For example; processing aids may be added to bread to increase the elasticity of the dough. Additives include lecithin which is an emulsifier made from soya beans or eggs.

Food Allergens poster

Don’t Forget Hidden Allergens!

Ok, so they aren’t actually hidden. But there are occasions where I have seen allergens overlooked!

  • Soya flour is sometimes used in cakes, burgers and biscuits.
  • Sausages may contain wheat from rusk or bread used to bind and/or pack the contents. Sulphites are a common preservative.
  • Beaten egg or milk is often used to glaze pasties, pies and pastries.
  • Caesar salad dressing may contain fish in the form of anchovies used to add flavour.
  • Peanut oil and/or nuts are often used in pesto.

In terms of hidden allergens, always make sure you check the label!

Ok, so we know what the allergens are now, but how do you tell your customers?

Providing allergen information

The way you need to provide allergen information depends on your type of business.

For catering premises, allergen information should be clearly communicated. It should be:

  • Easily accessible.
  • Displayed in an obvious place.
  • Clearly expressed

All staff should be aware of the procedure for handling customer requests. If staff are to provide the information, this must:

  • be made clear i.e. through signage
  • the information must be checked, confirmed as accurate, and correct every time it is given to a customer.

How you provide allergen information to customers will depend on the type of business you operate. Let’s take a closer look.

Restaurants & Cafes

If you provide food directly to your customer (such as in a restaurant or cafe) then you must provide the following:

  • Full allergen information on a menu, chalkboard or in an information pack
  • A notice placed in a clearly visible position stating how to get this information

The food standards agency have created a sign you can use for this purpose. You can download a copy here. Creating your own version in your branding is fine.

Allergen Intolerance Sign

Buffets

Buffet

If you offer a buffet, you need to provide allergen information for each food item separately.

You can provide this information by;

  • Labelling the allergens contained in individual dishes, or
  • By displaying a sign directing customers to ask staff for allergen information.

This information must be visible, clearly legible and easily accessible to the customer.

Food Delivery and Takeaway Food

Takeaway

For food sold through distance selling either online or by phone, you must provide allergen information at two stages in the order process:

  1. Before completing the sale of the food – this can be in writing (on a website, catalogue or menu) or orally (by phone)
  2. At the point of delivery or collection. This can be in writing (allergen stickers on food or an enclosed copy of a menu) or orally.

Allergen information should be available for your customers in written form at a point between them placing their order and receiving it. Takeaway meals should be clearly labelled so your customers know which dishes are suitable for someone with an allergy.

Sandwich Shops or similar

If as part of your business you pre-pack your food then you need to consider allergen labelling.

Things with labelling can get a little tricky, so let’s break this down a bit.

When is allergen labelling required?

Allergen labelling requirements vary depending on the food.

There are three types of food where this applies:

  1. Pre-Packed products
  2. Pre-Packed for direct sale (PPDS)
  3. Non-Pre-Packed (loose) foods

Prepacked Products

This refers to any food put into packaging in one location and sold at another. This applies to almost everything you see in a supermarket.

Food is prepacked when it:

  • Is either fully or partly enclosed by the packaging
  • Cannot be altered without opening or changing the packaging
  • Is ready for sale.

Prepacked food must have full ingredients labelling list present on the packaging. Allergens must have emphasis each time they appear on the ingredients list. Usually, this is by listing them in bold.

Prepacked for Direct Sale (PPDS)

Introduced in October 2021 new rules came into force around PPDS. This new legislation is known as Natasha’s Law.

Prepacked for direct sale products are foods that are packed and sold on the same premises. Think Pret or Itsu.

Common foods that can fall into this category include:

  • Sandwiches
  • Salads
  • Pies
  • Sushi

PPDS Foods must be labelled with a full ingredients list. Again allergenic ingredients must be emphasised.

Non-Prepacked (loose) Foods

bakery

If you sell non-prepacked foods, you must still supply allergen information.

Non-prepacked (loose) foods include:

  • foods sold loose in retail outlets
  • foods which are not sold prepacked ( like a sandwich made to order at a deli counter)

Allergens still need to be identified but this can be explained by staff members.

For more detailed guidance try the FSA’s allergy labelling tool.

How Do I Control Allergen Contamination?

It is important to avoid cross-contamination when preparing food to protect customers. Allergic reactions to food can occur with only a tiny amount of an allergen.

There are many actions that you can take including:

  • Cleaning utensils thoroughly before each use.
  • Washing hands thoroughly between preparing dishes.
  • Storing ingredients and prepared foods separately in closed and labelled containers.
  • Keeping ingredients that contain allergens separate from other ingredients.
  • Use separate equipment, utensils and preparation areas for foods containing allergens.
  • Using separate fryers for cooking certain foods. For example; to cook gluten free chips, you can’t use the same oil that has previously been used to cook fish.

A word of warning. If you can’t avoid cross-contamination, then you should let your customers know that you can’t provide an allergen-free dish.

What Are Food Allergy Symptoms?

Food Allergy Symptoms

Food allergen symptoms vary. Generally they last less than 24 hours and affect one or more of the following:

  • Skin – rashes, hives, eczema, redness and swelling around the mouth or face/neck.
  • Gastrointestinal system – cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • Respiratory system – runny nose, itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, coughing and wheezing.
  • Cardiovascular system – light-headedness and fainting.

Anaphylaxis. This is a severe, sudden and life-threatening allergic reaction. It is a medical emergency requiring swift action.

Anaphylaxis results in the following:

  • Rashes.
  • Severe swelling of the lips, tongue and throat.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Rapid fall in blood pressure.
  • Loss of consciousness.

What have we learned?

With allergens food businesses in retail and catering must follow food law rules.

This means you must:

  • Provide allergen information for all food and drinks served on the premises
  • Follow labelling requirements for both prepacked and non-prepacked food and drink
  • Handle and manage food allergens effectively in food preparation.

It’s an offence to provide inaccurate or incomplete information about allergenic ingredients used in food.

As a food handler, you cannot say that you do not know whether a food contains allergens or that all foods may contain allergens. Getting the facts accurate is vital.

Food businesses must make sure that staff receive training on allergens. Do not second guess what you think needs to be done! Get it right and leave nothing to chance.

References:

https://www.food.gov.uk/business-guidance/allergen-guidance-for-food-businesses

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