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Allergens – not just a matter of ingredients declaration

Posted By Dr Lisa Ackerley, Food Safety Adviser, UKHospitality, 17 August 2018

I have just read a  report of a test purchase of a dish in restaurant being made by Enforcement Officers to determine whether a meal actually contained peanuts following a request for the meal to not contain peanuts. This request is different to one that asks for information about ingredients in a dish, because the tests will be for contamination from allergens, which could be in very small quantities.

For some people, even the slightest trace of an allergen can cause the life-threatening illness of anaphylactic shock. Therefore it is important that businesses serving food are aware that if a customer asks for a meal to be free of a particular allergen – rather than simply asking about the ingredients in a menu item – that your team then takes care to convey exactly this message to back of house staff, to ensure that not only does the meal not contain the allergen as an ingredient, but also that all possible measures have been taken to ensure that there is no contamination. This means that not only do your back of house team need to prepare food with utmost care, but you will need to ensure you have clarification from your suppliers on items where they have declared that the food product was made in a factory preparing allergenic ingredients, or that it “may contain” an allergen – get it wrong and this could result in traces of allergen appearing in your foods.

If asked, and you have replied that a food is free of an allergen, and it is subsequently found to have contamination from the allergen, an offence could have been committed because the food is not what it says it is. This is particularly difficult as businesses have to rely on the accuracy of information from their suppliers. To be sure, ensure that you have had a conversation with your supplier in advance if they have a “may contain” or any other disclaimer. You may need to assume if it says “may contain” that it actually does contain the allergen. Or you can discuss this with your guests and let them make the decision based on the information you have provided.  If in any doubt that you can provide an allergen-free meal, it is better to say you cannot provide the meal, rather than risk causing illness or being prosecuted. It is not an offence to say that you cannot be sure and do not want to serve someone. I know that no-one wants to turn away business, but better that, than the consequences of inadvertently serving up an allergen to an allergic customer or enforcement officer.

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