When running a food business of any kind, good allergen awareness across the board should be of paramount importance. Nowhere is this more important than in the retail segment of the food production cycle, where customers normally first come into contact with the food product.
For any food retailer, understanding this integral part of food health and safety is vital for preventing dangerous allergic reactions, maintaining customer relationships, and complying with local and national laws. If you work in a food retail establishment, you should also be aware of the risks that are present and the control measures that will likely have been put in place to ensure business compliance.
In this article, we take a closer look at the guidance given around food allergy awareness in retail and share advice for businesses on how to ensure that they stick to these regulations.
The majority of food allergy sufferers are allergic to at least one of the following ingredients, although it is possible to be allergic to any food product. There are 14 main allergens which are highlighted by the Foods Standards Agency as ones which must be accounted for by food retailers.
If any food product contains one or more of these allergens, it must be clearly labelled somewhere on the packaging. This is usually done as part of the ingredients list, where allergens are highlighted in bold.
A strong understanding of allergens and their impact on retail is always beneficial to any business – in particular when it comes to the law, your company’s reputation and the health and safety of your customers. Safely managing allergens in a food retail environment can be split into three main areas; labelling, cleanliness and allergic reaction first aid.
For many retail outlets and customers, packaging plays an integral role in providing information on the presence of allergens in food.
The legal framework for allergen information on food packaging in retail is detailed in the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation, which came into force in 2011. This regulation states that food retailers must advertise allergen information to consumers, with legal obligations split into pre-packaged and non-pre-packaged products.
Pre-packaged products, or food which is packed before it is put on sale, must have its ingredients advertised on the packaging. Any of the 14 main allergens listed above must be highlighted and made obvious in the ingredients list.
This also includes information on whether any ingredients have been produced in an environment where any of the 14 allergens are present, which is a part of precautionary allergen labelling. Some people with very serious allergies can have a reaction just by eating food that has been prepared in the same place as an allergen, which is why this needs to be clearly indicated.
When products are packed at the direct point of sale or in the place where they are sold, they do not need to have their allergens written on the packaging. An example of this would be a baker making a pie and selling it from the same bakery, where the pie is displayed without any packaging until a consumer selects and purchases it, after which it will usually be wrapped up or put in a bag.
These kinds of food products are not considered pre-packaged in the same way that production line food products are. This is because they aren’t displayed in their packaging like prepacked for direct sale (PPDS) food.
However, the retailer must have someone on the premises that knows the allergen contents of every product, or an easily-visible document detailing allergens which might feature on the menu. This includes all loose foods on sale.
If you’re a retailer that sells products packed at the direct point of sale, it’s a good idea to have ingredient lists displayed alongside each of your food products with the allergens highlighted in bold. This might seem like an unnecessary effort to begin with, but will make it much easier for customers to make informed choices and save constantly having to consult allergen documents and potentially making a mistake with an ingredient list.
An important aspect of allergen presence in retail is cleanliness in the working environment. An unclean kitchen or serving environment presents a risk of allergen cross-contamination, where products containing allergens could unintentionally contaminate an allergy-free product and pose a risk to the consumer.
When handling uncovered or unpacked food on a surface, be sure to clean the surface after contact and ensure that the employee working with the food washes their hands before and after serving. You should also ensure that utensils are cleaned between uses with different food products.
When storing ingredients, ensure that allergens are kept in separate containers from other foodstuffs and that these containers are sealed, labelled and never used to store anything else. A HACCP system (hazard analysis and critical control points) will help you achieve this.
Finally, whilst it’s unlikely to be needed, knowing what to do in the event of someone having an allergic reaction in your food business is also an important element of food allergy safety in retail. Some people might consume the products they have bought whilst still on site, especially if you run a cafe, and some allergic reactions can happen instantly.
Allergy first aid includes training staff on the main allergens, the effects they can have on customers who are allergic and the response actions for anyone experiencing a reaction. Recognising the symptoms of all allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock are a key part of this, along with knowing what to do if someone goes into anaphylaxis.
The best way to develop a work-wide understanding of food allergens and their effect on customers and the business is through food allergy and intolerance training.
As a retail owner, you’ll be preparing and directly selling a variety of foods, many of which could contain allergens. It is your responsibility to train your staff to handle allergens carefully and to be able to give customers a rundown of any allergens that are present or may have come into contact with their food.
Many mandatory health and safety courses contain an element of allergen awareness training, but if you want to ensure that your staff fully understand the risks and regulations around allergens, undertaking specific allergen awareness training is the best approach. Offering online training, such as our ‘Food Allergy Awareness Training’ course, gives your staff flexibility and means that this important information is easily accessible for everyone.
Local authorities are responsible for enforcing allergy regulations, which means that you risk a visit and penalty from the local authority if you don’t comply with the necessary regulations. However, the guidance and legislation that all food retailers have to follow about allergies come from the national government or governing body, which in England is the UK government and the Food Standards Agency.
Food allergy regulations apply to any businesses that supply food products to customers or caterers. If you’re a retail establishment that sells or serves food products, you need to comply with allergy health and safety legislation or you risk legal consequences.
Where possible, all the necessary allergen information for food products should be displayed on the product’s packaging, so if a customer asks about allergens you can direct them to this. However, you should also have a separate document that lists the allergens present in each food product on sale, which can also be consulted if a customer asks and must be regularly checked and updated. A food allergies and intolerances sign is also a good idea.
If you work or own a food retail business then allergy awareness is an essential part of your role and responsibilities. The necessary steps to ensure allergens are labelled and cross-contamination is minimised are quite simple to follow when a system is put in place, and the benefit of ensuring staff and customers are safe makes these efforts 100% worth it.
If you work in food retail and are looking for training resources to improve your understanding of allergy awareness and safety, our ‘Level 2 Food Hygiene, First Aid and Food Allergy Training Package’ is a great comprehensive online resource.