Worldwide millions of people suffer from food allergies and food hypersensitivities in their daily lives. Hereby, the immune reactions vary in severity from mild symptoms involving lip and hives swelling to partially life-threatening symptoms.
From 1998 to 2018 hospital admissions in the UK for anaphylaxis due to food allergies increased threefold, from 1.23 to 4.04 admissions per 100,000 population per year (an increase of 5.7% per year). The study, conducted by scientists from imperial College, London, and published in the British Medical Journal, also found that over the same period deaths from serious food induced anaphylaxis have declined.
These statistics are of special interest to the hospitality sector. The proper response by governments is to tighten up food labeling to ensure the ingredients are listed clearly to enable those with allergies to avoid anything that might trigger a reaction. Anyone providing food to the public also has to abide by this legislation.
Allergens and special diets – increasing demand for consultancy
Julian Edwards FCSI says his UK-based foodservice consultancy company GY5 Consulting, spends three to five days out of 20 on allergen specific topics for its clients. “I would say, 20-25% of our work is allergen specific, that’s either investigating, training, or auditing,” he says. “It is a big part of our catering operation, and it seems to be growing. The services are in demand especially reactive demand, so if something’s happened, they want to get some expertise in to try and get under the skin as to why things go wrong within a kitchen. We see that often.”
We do a lot of work in schools,” Edwards continues. “Every year, more and more kids present themselves with an allergy that requires a special diet. And that’s big business. A lot of caterers we work with have nutritionists who are solely dedicated to preparing special diet meal plans, which is a massive resource. And it takes up a lot of time and effort.”
Labeling food correctly
As well as ensuring output is clearly labelled for allergens, foodservice operators must also ensure the ingredients they used are labelled correctly. Trusted supply chains are vital, as Edwards says: “We’re delivering a seminar in September, 2023 on food fraud and food crime, and there will be a few references there to allergen controls and how they can be affected because the product you’re buying has gone through a handling process, which means it’s cross-contaminated with either a foreign object or a something, which can have a huge impact on trying to manage allergens in the ingredient chain correctly.”
But there is a problem. “We’re dealing with post-pandemic era where criminals, and fraudsters, see food and the food chain as an easy target for a money-making operation, he continues. “Any part of the food chain that puts money at the top of the objective risks compromising things like alternative, cheaper ingredients. We do expect caterers to perform at a really high standard and maintaining those standards in the currently economic climate is tough. So, one of our top tips to caterers and restaurants is keep your food simple; buy in raw ingredients, cook it from scratch, the less you buy in, the less ready-made you rely on, the higher your chance of success on your allergen standard.”
So, what other tips would Edwards pass on to restaurants and other foodservice businesses? “I think the first and biggest tip is training,” declares Edwards. “There has to be professional training – empowering and engaged training. If it isn’t empowering or engaging the persons involved, it’s not working. It’s not sinking in, is it?” Training that covers all the right criteria, and it’s delivered in the correct manner is your first requirement to ensure that everyone in the organization knows that their expectations on the safe management of allergens and customer information.
Since officially leaving the EU in January 2020 British standards have not become more lenient. “Natasha’s law is one example of where the UK has enhanced the European regulations on allergens,” says Edwards referring to the law introduced in October 2021. This requires outlets to list all the ingredients on individual packaging of products that are considered pre-packed for direct sale. “The UK is taking that European legislation and enhancing it to make it more stringent.”
Edwards considers the British and Irish effort has been one of the best globally. Although he praises Australia for being in the vanguard of allergen awareness. “Australia has a wealth of great organizations who are really switched on in regard to allergen management, campaigning, and awareness,” he says. “When it comes to training, a lot of the top materials we access from Australia. 10 years ago. there wasn’t a formal training course available in this country, but we found the best materials came from Australia.”
If you are a customer with an allergy what is your starting point (before talking to staff)? Edwards recommends checking an organization’s ranking in the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme. “Every business in the UK should have a rating system.” He says, and if they are paying attention to kitchen hygiene, they should be organized enough to care about providing correct allergen information. As Edwards acknowledges: “We are in hospitality, we will try and cater for everybody, we want our customers to be happy in the end.”