Allergens in food (the Bad and the Ugly)
It may seem like quite an uninteresting and uninspiring blog topic for many, but for the 1 million plus food allergy sufferers in the UK; and the estimated 20 million sufferers Europe-wide, it is far from it. This entry looks at the effects and causes of food allergens, the legal implications for caterers and what can be done to reduce the risks.
Food allergies can make life incredibly difficult; particularly when food shopping or eating out. Some allergies can be so severe, even the tiniest trace of allergen present can trigger severe symptoms, anaphylaxis or even death. Although most sufferers endure symptoms less serious than these, the annual estimated cost of primary care in association with food allergens is approximately £900m.
Possibly the most alarming aspect is the growing prevalence of allergies in recent times. Annually, the number of allergy sufferers increases by 5% and half of all new sufferers are children. Hospital admittances for allergen based cases have increased over sevenfold in the last 10 years; and year-on-year emergency emissions due to allergic reactions are rising by more than 6%. There are far more adrenaline pen wielding people out there now than there has ever been!
Whilst many of us are familiar with conditions such as nut allergies and gluten intolerances, the Food Standards Agency separates food allergens into 14 main categories:
Why are allergens on the increase?
At present, the precise reason for the increase of allergic reactions to foods is unclear. Research suggests a number of factors are part of the equation. The first is genetics; children born with one parent with an allergy are 50% more likely to develop one themselves. (Those with both parents as allergy sufferers are even more likely to develop an allergy – around 60-80%).
The second factor has been coined the ‘hygiene hypothesis’. This suggests that the environment our children grow up in during their infant stage is much cleaner and hygienic than ever before; and that this has a detrimental effect upon the immune system. Essentially, not being exposed enough at a young age to micro-organisms and bacteria can result in a tendency towards allergy. This is highlighted when comparing children growing up on farms to those in cities – the rural children having a lower prevalence of allergy.
Other possible factors that are worthy of a mention include changes in diet (away from fresh fruit and vegetables and towards processed foods) and the increases in pollutants in the atmosphere. Whilst the direct evidence for these points is limited and still being researched, it is hoped that it will (along with new labelling legislation) all contribute to a greater understanding of allergens in the future.
What does this mean to food retailers and caterers?
As of December 2014, new rules came into force concerning the labelling of allergens. Pre-packed food with allergens present must be clearly labelled on the packaging. Under the new rules, there is now a legal requirement to provide allergy information on non-prepacked food also.
What constitutes non-prepacked foods?
They are often described as foods sold loose. For example, this includes foods sold from a delicatessen counter (such as cold meats, cheese and pies), freshly prepared pizzas and breads, fish and salad bars. In the catering world this would apply to any foods made ready for consumption; whether it be from a café, a takeaway or a restaurant.
How do I label ingredients if the good isn’t sold in packaging?
As per the new legislation, information on allergenic ingredients must be:
- Written up front (for example on a menu board or individual menus) without the customer having to ask beforehand
- Clearly sign-posted stating where written information can be found or obtained
- Clearly sign-posted to say that oral information can be obtained from members of staff. It is no longer acceptable to simply state that a dish may contain allergens, or that you/your staff are unsure if it does or not; the law states that companies must be aware of the contents of their food and have this information freely available to pass onto the consumer. Failure to do so could result in prosecution for non-compliance
And now… For the good news… Help IS at hand!
How we can help
The Food Standards Agency suggest the best practice regarding the control of allergens to be a combination of correct storage of allergenic ingredients, reducing risk of cross-contamination by using non-shared utensils and thorough cleaning of work surfaces, equipment and hands before preparing food.
At Total Catering, our Allergen Package seeks to address these issues; and with 20% off you can be sure you are getting great value for money – giving you purple colour coded utensils and equipment to make control of allergenic ingredients as efficient and effective as possible. Check out our range today at www.totalcatering.co.uk or calling the sales team on 01206 795 327!
Keep your eyes peeled for future blog posts showcasing our allergen promotional range – featuring a special allergen package at a great discount!