Food allergies are a serious issue that is becoming more common throughout Australia. Approximately 2% of adults suffer from a food allergy, 10% of infants under the age of one and 4—8% of children up to five years of age. Any type of food has the potential to elicit an allergic response, however, there are certain foods that people are more likely to be allergic to. There are 10 foods that account for approximately 90% of all food allergies: wheat, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, eggs, milk, fish, soy, sesame seeds and lupin. While many children outgrow their food allergies, certain allergies such as those to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish are more likely to be lifelong allergies.
Reactions due to food allergies can range from mild discomforts such as hives or rashes, to serious and life-threatening reactions such as anaphylaxis. This is why food allergies must be taken extremely seriously.
Food businesses in Australia are accountable for knowing the presence of allergens in foods they sell. It is vital that food businesses ensure procedures and training are put in place, and food service staff understand their obligations to declare known allergens in food when a customer asks.
How a food business conducts allergen management is vital. The following are best practices for allergen management in a food business.
Communicate with suppliers
First and foremost, it is essential that food businesses know exactly what is in the ingredients and other food items that are purchased from suppliers. Food businesses must understand how their chosen suppliers determine allergen status for the items that they sell. Food businesses can require that suppliers provide information about how they arrive at allergen status and the measures they take before making any declaration. Food businesses can also require audits or other compliance certification to verify what the supplier states about their items.
Also, food businesses must keep communication open with their chosen suppliers; this allows for food businesses to be kept up-to-date on ingredient or formula changes as well as any changes in how the supplier determines allergen status.
Understand proper storage protocols
Once items have arrived at the food premises from the supplier, it is essential that food businesses store food items properly. This is important for all food items, but especially those that are raw food items. All food items need to be handled and stored in a way that minimises the chance of cross-contamination. Items that contain allergens should be stored away from other food items, and clearly marked in a container (using colour-coded containers is a helpful option). If food items containing allergens cannot be separated from other food items, it is advised to store them below other food items in order to reduce the risk of them spilling onto other items and causing cross-contamination.
It is imperative that all staff know the products that the food business makes and sells, as well as their ingredients. Check product labels of all foods and ingredients used in the business for allergens, including allergens listed by alternative names. Be sure to check ingredients in pre-packaged foods, especially products manufactured off-site. Only use labelled ingredients and products, and take precaution when adding any ingredients to products in the food business.
Use dedicated areas
When it comes to preparing meals, it is important to have a dedicated space and cooking utensils for preparing allergen-free meals. By doing so, food businesses can easily and safely prepare a meal free from a particular allergen should it be requested by a customer.
It is essential that these dedicated areas and cooking utensils are cleaned and sanitised after every use, since different customers will have different allergies. For example, a customer may request a meal that is prepared with soy milk instead of cow’s milk due to an allergy. Later, a different customer could request a soy-free meal be prepared. If the dedicated utensils and cooking area have not been properly cleaned and sanitised after the milk-free meal from earlier, the second customer could have an allergic reaction due to the soy-milk that was used in the other meal. It is important to take this seriously, as minimal amounts of an allergen are enough to cause a serious allergic reaction in some people.
Sometimes ingredients change. If a supplier has changed their formula or recipe for a particular food item, it is essential that the food business read labels to determine if there are any allergens introduced by the change. Changes to recipes mean that menus must be updated to include any new ingredients. Even if the new ingredients aren’t considered one of the top 10 food allergens, update the menu anyways. Remember: any food can contain an allergen, so do not assume that no customers will be allergic to your changed menu item.
Changes to ingredients and menu items must also be communicated and explained clearly to all staff members. Cooks in the kitchen must understand how the recipe has changed and any implications for allergen management. Staff at the front of house must also be made aware of changes to menu items. Servers need to know what each menu item contains so that they can advise customers should they declare an allergy when ordering. It is advised that other front-of-house staff, such as hostesses, know which menu items contain allergens as well. This way, if they receive a phone call asking about a particular meal on the menu, the staff member can answer those questions accurately.
Ensure training is up-to-date
In Australia, the Food Standards Code requires anyone who works with food to be trained in food safety. Along with understanding food safety, training involves understanding food allergies and how to mitigate allergen risks in a food business. This is essential to ensuring that everyone in the food business takes food allergies seriously and are able to implement best practices for allergen management. The nationally recognised AIFS Food Handler Course provides a solid understanding of the basics of food safety and food allergies.
Remember: training on food allergies doesn’t stop once a staff member has completed their food safety training. It is vital that food business owners and managers continue to communicate about allergens with staff members on a frequent basis. It is easy for food allergy protocols to slip, so management must keep food allergies top-of-mind for all staff.
Want more information on allergen management? Download the AIFS Guide to Allergen Management for Food Businesses.