Last week we published our first blog in a series of three on how to improve food allergen management. We looked at some top tips on how to use training to strengthen food allergen standard operating procedure.
This week we’ll be looking at documenting food allergens properly. We’ll take you through what is legally required and some other recommendations that can help your restaurant, pub, hotel, café or generic food business ensure you’ve covered all bases in terms of documenting food allergens.
So, what are the regulations for documenting food allergens?
Although the government is potentially looking into reforming food allergen regulations following a number of serious incidents this year, there are in actual fact already strict rules in place regarding the documenting of food allergens that some businesses neglect to conform to.
The Food Information Regulations 2014 require food outlets who prepare food on their own premises to give food allergen information on signs. If the food is prepared on the same day in an onsite kitchen, food allergen information must be provided verbally, but must always be backed up by written records detailing the allergen information to ensure that it is accurate and consistent.
Although the above might seem simple to follow and implement, it is actually quite difficult in reality. You see, it all very much relies on the proper documenting of food allergens throughout the food production and distribution process. This means that, to really be in control of food allergen information on the food you provide your customers, you must also regulate your suppliers and their processes for food allergen management.
There are therefore various additional tips your business could benefit from to further strengthen the documenting of food allergens in your business.
Our top tips on documenting food allergens to help you manage food allergen standard operating procedure better:
- Regularly check online food allergen systems for any notifications of changes in products/allergens
You’d be surprised to hear about the frequency with which we distribute product recall notifications due to incorrect labelling or processing of certain products by suppliers. If you’re not receiving these notifications or even showing yourself to be monitoring these types of errors made by suppliers, your business could be vulnerable to the repercussions that might occur if a customer suffers an allergic reaction.
Speak to your supplier to get added to a food safety recall notification list and also request to be in the distribution list for any updates relating to allergens for every product that you stock. If a supplier is unable to support such a request we’d recommend finding a new supplier altogether, or to ensure someone within your business manages the checking of online allergen systems for the sake of your business’ due diligence. The other side of this coin is of course that you must communicate important food allergen notifications effectively internally, which brings us nicely to our next point.
- Keep all your recipe cards and food allergen matrices up-to-date
Laziness in regard to updating your documentation for recipes and allergen matrices is an absolute no-no. Once you find out from suppliers that there has been a change to the make-up of a product or its handling, you must update your recipe cards and allergen matrices immediately. Don’t wait to collect a number of edits before you make these changes: a customer with a severe allergy might be put in danger.
Similarly, whenever you change a dish or your menu you must simultaneously update your recipe cards and allergen matrices. Make it a habit to not do one without the other and you will show that your due diligence is consistently on point. It might also be a good idea to appoint one responsible individual to act as an allergen controller through whom any changes to food allergen information are notified and accounted for.
- Inform all kitchen staff and staff involved in the ordering or delivery process of any product or recipe changes that create changes in allergen content.
Again this point follows on from the previous one, but it is of equal importance. Too often we find that businesses do not have a proper process in place to circulate food allergen information to all members of staff.
Implement a strict food allergen policy and train your staff on how to follow the food allergen processes stipulated in the policy. This will help to ensure that all your staff are up-to-date on any food allergen changes and that they know to take every new notification seriously. If members of staff are ever in doubt, advise and train them to always refer to the official and available food allergen documentation.
- Never accept substitute products in delivery – these might contain different food allergens to those you know about in your regular product.
Suppliers can at times attempt to deliver alternative products, for example when their production process hasn’t gone quite as expected, or perhaps when they’ve run out of products. It’s understandable that they try to mitigate any negative consequences by an attempt to substitute these products.
Similarly, if certain products are unavailable to you it could impact on your trading too and so your staff might actually be tempted to accept substitute products for the sake of ease, profit and every other logical reason you could think of. However, for the sake of your reputation and the off chance that the substitute products could contain unknown food allergens, it is imperative that you train your staff not to accept such deliveries. Our stocktaking team too would support this approach – make sure your staff are trained to check deliveries before signing for them and that they know not to accept any delivery that isn’t exactly what you ordered!
- Create a menu with all food allergen information clearly labelled so that customers can make a fully informed decision.
It is always much better to specify food allergen information clearly on the menu – this way you’re covered if one of your staff happens to be having an off day and forgets or incorrectly informs a customer about a potential allergy risk. It’ll also help your customers feel safe in the knowledge that what they’re ordering doesn’t contain food allergens that are harmful to them. Last but not least, it saves your business the extra effort of having to produce back up documentation for every dish that you serve.
- Beverages ought to follow the same rules as food regarding food allergen documentation
People often think that food allergen documentation only applies to the food they serve. However, the tricky thing with allergens is the need to consider the entire processing of any product that is consumed. Contact with food allergens through cross contamination, for example, can leave enough residue for a customer to be put in danger of having an allergic reaction and this includes drinks!
Beverages that are based on allergenic ingredients, such as beer that’s produced from cereals that contain gluten, or beverages that contain allergenic products, such as the egg white in a Pisco Sour, are not often supported by clearly documented food allergen information on menus.
Although most customers who suffer from allergies will know exactly which beverages to stay away from, it’s always better to be extra careful by providing them with clear food allergen information on your drinks menu, especially when presenting your own mixers and blends of drinks. This becomes particularly important for customers drinking alcoholic beverages, who might already have had a few drinks and may have decreased ability to make good decisions.
So, those are our top tips for documenting food allergens and these should help you achieve improved standard operating procedure. If you require help setting up a food allergen system that works for your business, our food safety consultants are experts in their field and can work with your teams to achieve the highest level of food allergen compliance. You can find out more about our food safety services here.
Next week we’ll take you through our final food allergen topic: giving you tips on how to improve food allergen operating procedure through service.
Keep your eyes peeled for the next article!
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