An increasing number of people in the UK are being diagnosed with food allergies. It is vital that restaurants and food businesses provide clear and accurate information about allergenic ingredients in their products.
It has been widely reported that nut allergies can have devastating consequences, causing brain damage or death. Last year, 15-year old Megan Lee had a severe allergic reaction and sadly died after eating food from an Indian takeaway in Lancashire. Two men were charged with manslaughter, one count of failing to discharge general health and safety duty to a person other than an employee and one count of contravening or failing to comply with EU provision concerning food safety and hygiene.
More recently, another teenager from Nottinghamshire ate just one mouthful of a friend’s Chinese takeaway meal. Shortly after, he collapsed and tragically died from anaphylactic shock.
What are food allergies?
According to the NHS, a food allergy is when the body's immune system reacts unusually to specific foods. Although allergic reactions are often mild, they can be very serious.
Symptoms of a food allergy can affect different areas of the body at the same time. Some common symptoms include:
- an itchy sensation inside the mouth, throat or ears
- a raised itchy red rash - hives
- swelling of the face, around the eyes, lips, tongue and roof of the mouth
In the most serious cases, a person has a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis - which can be life threatening.
Peanut allergies explained
Peanut allergies are becoming increasingly common, particularly amongst children. Exposure to peanuts can result in reactions such as itching or swelling around the mouth, shortness of breath or wheezing.
Allergic reactions can be caused by direct or indirect contact with peanuts. The allergy occurs when the immune system wrongly identifies peanut proteins as harmful and fights back by releasing symptom-causing chemicals, such as histamine, into the bloodstream.
Complications of peanut allergy can include anaphylaxis which is life-threatening. Signs and symptoms include swelling of the throat, loss of consciousness and a sudden drop in blood pressure.
According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), every year there are around 4,500 hospital admissions and 10 deaths from food allergies in the UK.
To safeguard the public, new allergen information rules were introduced at the end of 2014 to change the way consumers receive information on allergens. The EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC) means allergen information must now be provided in a clearer and more consistent way on prepacked and loose food, making it easier for consumers to make safer choices when buying food or eating out.
If you are a consumer, you can ask for information about 14 allergens, if used as an ingredient in the food you are buying when you eat out.
How can restaurants deal with food allergies and consumer safety?
If you are a restaurant, you must provide information about 14 allergens, if used as an ingredient in the food you are providing or selling. You can do this on a menu, chalkboard, website or orally, and you must point out this information to your customers. This is most commonly done by a message at the bottom of the menu.
All staff must be properly trained with regards to the dangers of food allergies and the need to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen. Food must be prepared and delivered separately to the customer to ensure that it is free from allergens and safe for consumption.
A guide for people with allergies
Always read the label on packaged goods and study the menu when eating out - and most make importantly inform the chef or restaurant staff of your allergy.
It is important to carry antihistamines with you and an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) in case of emergency. If you suffer a reaction, the epinephrine shot should be used as the initial treatment, and the emergency services called immediately.
Food safety support services
To help restaurants and catering businesses to comply with legislation, Food Alert can provide comprehensive training on food allergens and software solutions for maintaining records of the allergens in your food.
Peter Christopher-Ohrt, Managing Director Technical Services, Food Alert Ltd, states: “Allergen control is probably now one of the hardest issues for restaurants to adequately manage. The provision of information on the fourteen allergens and the training of staff is the easy part. The difficulty comes when making sure that the training has been effective, as for so many working in the food business, English is not their first language so translations can differ. Also, what about training for agency or temporary staff and those that work trial shifts?
For the kitchen, what happens when an ingredient runs out and can’t be obtained from the normal supplier. Are you certain you know the allergens in that food? If a supplier runs out or the manufacturer changes their recipes, do you always get to hear about it?
This is without even considering the issues of cross contamination in a kitchen. This is far more likely than in a food factory, due to the close proximity of allergens in a kitchen and the speed of service. Great care and effort is required constantly if allergen control is to be adequate.”