By Rob Easton, Head of Environmental Health at Shield Safety (www.shieldsafety.co.uk)
Research published by Dr Hazel Gowland unveiled prosecutions for food allergen incidents increased almost ten-fold over a period of six years, with peanut being the most common allergen involved, followed by milk and egg. Further to the significant increase and with public consciousness of allergens at an all-time high, Rob Easton, Head of Environmental Health at Shield Safety and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, shares an insight into the latest trends in food allergy incidents and the implications for food businesses.
Further research conducted by Shield Safety echoed Dr Gowland’s findings. Senior Safety Consultant Vicky Wood, recently led a team of Environmental Health Practitioners in reviewing over 2000 allergen incidents over a four-year period. The research discovered that the most common cause of allergen incidents was peanut (23%), followed closely by gluten (20%) and then milk (13%). An explanation for the higher rate of prosecution for peanut incidents could be the more severe immediate symptoms reported by allergic consumers to peanuts compared with gluten. Of the 2,000 incidents reviewed, there were only 4 cases of sulphites, 3 of celery, and 1 of lupin.
To consider how we are able to manage allergens more in a business, it’s important to look at the food value chain – the process in which a company adds value to raw materials to produce products eventually sold to customers, from dish design to delivery of the food. As part of the research, a number of ‘hotspots’ have been recognised throughout that journey, sharing a strong overview of the primary reasons for the allergen incidents in the business and enabling controls specific to that area to be put into place.
Whilst there is still the critical need to identify and communicate the deliberate inclusion of the fourteen regulated allergens, research indicates that peanut, milk and nut allergens are more likely to cause severe symptoms and lead to legal actions. Businesses may wish to focus on these allergens when designing dishes and menus, considering how the ingredients containing the allergen are avoided or substituted, and therefore eliminating the hazard early in the food journey.
Incorrect information contained in the matrix used to communicate allergens is also a primary reason. To address that as a food business, look to implement one source of the truth; by having one point of data entry and one point of communication to the customer, the opportunity for human error is then eradicated. To strengthen that further, there is great value in having an independent review of the matrix, allowing any errors that have possibly occurred to be picked up. It may be that someone hasn’t appreciated that there’s a particular ingredient within a dish, so the reassurance of an independent review of the information will leave you confident that what is going to the consumer is correct.
Communication is key. Researched revealed that with 10% of cases explored, the communication of the allergen taken from the front of house, was not passed to the kitchen. We are also seeing that the wrong food is delivered to the customer.
EPOS systems can be exceptionally useful in communicating allergens but, it’s also important to back this up with personal interaction. The clear marking and segregation of food on pass also needs to be considered. Are you ensuring that the dish not containing allergens is separate, marked and clear? Following that, then making sure that this is communicated to the consumer upon delivery, whether that’s in a restaurant or a takeaway.
An increased prevalence of vegan products is also presenting a challenge, representing a risk to consumers who are highly sensitive to milk and eggs. Many customers will order a vegan product with the assumption that is free from milk and eggs; whilst the product may not include milk and egg as an intended ingredient, the necessary segregation may not be in place and therefore trace amounts of the allergen may be present in the food and at a level that can cause a reaction. It is important for food businesses to be aware that customers are using vegan claims as a method of avoiding food with allergens and consider if they can reduce the risk to zero for cross-contamination or how the risk is communicated to the customer.