Food allergies are a serious issue that is becoming more common throughout Australia. Approximately 2% of adults, 10% of infants under the age of one, and 4-8% of children up to five years of age suffer from a food allergy. 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, allergies such as those to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish are more likely to be lifelong conditions.
While many children outgrow their food allergies, allergies such as those to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish are more likely to be lifelong conditions.
Allergic reactions can range from mild discomforts such as warming skin or rashes, to serious and life-threatening responses such as anaphylaxis. This is why food allergies must be taken extremely seriously by food businesses.
Food businesses in Australia are accountable for the safe preparation of food for all customers, including those with allergies. This includes awareness of any allergens in foods being sold, and ensuring procedures and training are in place. Food service staff have to understand their obligations to allergy-suffering customers, and know how to prevent and manage allergy-related incidents. These practices are all collectively known as allergen management.
How a food business conducts allergen management is vital to food safety. 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 contained in ingredients and other food items that are purchased from suppliers. Food businesses must understand how their chosen suppliers determine the allergen content for the items that they sell. Food businesses can require that their suppliers provide information about how they determine allergy content, and the measures they take before making any declaration. Food businesses can also require audits or other compliance certifications to verify what the supplier declares about their items.
It's also important for food businesses and suppliers to maintain open and ongoing communication. Suppliers should be keeping their customers up-to-date on ingredient or formula changes, as well as any changes in how the supplier determines allergen status. Food businesses should work with their suppliers to ensure this information is being regularly provided.
Understand proper storage protocols
Once items have been delivered at the food premises by the supplier, it is essential that food businesses store items properly. This is important for all food items, but especially for 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, in clearly marked, closed containers. (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.
Know ingredients and recipes
Just as it is important to know the ingredients in products from suppliers, it is imperative that all staff know the ingredients in the products that the food business makes and sells. Staff should check product labels of all foods and ingredients used in the business for mentions of allergens, including allergens listed under alternative names. It's important to remember to check labels, even if it seems like a product wouldn't contain a particular allergen, as that is not always the case. Staff should also be sure to check ingredients in pre-packaged foods, especially products manufactured off-site, and only use properly labelled ingredients and products.
Use dedicated areas
Another aspect of effective allergen management occurs during meal preparation. When preparing meals, it is important to have a dedicated space and cooking utensils for 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. Later, a different customer could ask for a soy-free meal. 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. It is important to take this seriously, as minimal amounts of an allergen are enough to cause a serious allergic reaction in some people.
Communicate changes to staff and customers
Sometimes ingredients change. Suppliers can change their formulas; raw ingredients may change manufacturing facilities, affecting production; or in-house chefs may change recipes. When ingredients change, it is essential that the food business read any labels to determine if there are any allergens introduced by the change, and update any menus or signage to include any new ingredients. Even if the new ingredients aren’t considered one of the top 10 food allergens, menus and labels should still be updated. 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 in front-of-house must also be made aware of changes. Servers need to know what each menu item contains so that they can advise customers who 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. Allergen management is an important component of a complete food safety plan. Having staff properly trained in food allergies and allergen management is essential to ensuring that everyone in the food business takes food allergies seriously and are able to implement best practices. The AIFS Food Allergen Management Course provides a specific understanding of food allergen management; and the AIFS Food Handler Course provides a broader understanding of all aspects of food safety.
Remember: food allergen training 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 frequently. It is easy for food allergy protocols to slip, so management must keep allergen management top-of-mind for all staff.
Want more information on allergen management? Download the AIFS Guide to Allergen Management for Food Businesses.