We have received several questions about the new EU Food Information For Consumers legislation, particularly regarding the requirement for caterers to provide allergen information to customers.

We hope the answers that follow will enable you to prepare for the legislation.

What Exactly Is The New EU Allergen Legislation?

Currently, you are under no legal obligation to provide information about the nutritional content, or the presence of potential allergens, in the food that you serve to your customers. However, this will change from 13th December 2014 when a new piece of European legislation called the Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU/FIR1169/2011) comes into force.

From date, you will be required by law to provide a warning to your customer if any food that you serve contains one or more of the fourteen major food allergens covered by the legislation.

What Is The Background To This Legislation?

When your customer buys food from a retail outlet, by law the nutritional and allergen information is clearly printed on the label. However, when a customer steps over the threshold of your restaurant, he or she is on their own as far as getting information about the nutritional content of the dishes on your menu. This is neither fair nor reasonable. And your customer knows it.

The EU FIC will bring general and nutritional labelling together as a consolidated regulation in order to simplify the existing legislation.

How Will It Affect Me And My Business?

If you are a Food Business Operator (FBO) of any description, you will be directly affected by the legislation. The legislation applies to all 'loose' food sold in restaurants, hotels and institutions. It also applies to food pre-packed for direct sale, for example, on deli counters or in bakeries and sandwich bars.

From 13th December 2014, you will be required to provide a warning to your customer if any food that you serve contains one or more of the fourteen major food allergens covered by the legislation.

Will There Be A Transition Period During Which The Enforcement Officers Will  Be Lenient Towards Offenses Committed Under The Legislation?

Unfortunately not.

This legislation was adopted by the Council of the European Union on 29th September 2011 so the Industry has already had almost three years to put measures in place to comply.

In other words, you are expected to be fully compliant with the legislation on or before 13th December.

What Are The Major Allergens?

They are as follows:

Cereals containing gluten, e.g. wheat and barley
Crustaceans, e.g. lobster and crayfish
Molluscs, e.g. clams, mussels, oysters, snails and squid
Fish
Peanuts
Nuts, e.g. almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts
Eggs
Soybeans
Milk
Celery
Mustard
Sesame
Lupin
Sulphur dioxide

Isn't It Obvious When A Dish Contains One Or More Of The Allergens?

Unfortunately, no.

Of course, it is obvious when a dish on your menu contains ingredients such as eggs, milk and fish. However, many of the allergens are hidden where you may least expect to find them so it is essential that you are familiar with the constituents of EVERY ingredient used in your kitchen.

Here are just a few examples of hidden allergens:

Worcester Sauce; usually contains anchovies
Red/White Wine; egg white, milk protein or collagen derived from fish, are often used in the fining process; sulphur dioxide is a common preservative
Curry Sauces; contain ghee, which is a type of clarified butter
Fresh Pasta; egg is frequently the liquid content
Pesto Sauce; often contains tree nuts and/or peanuts
1000 Island Salad Dressing (e.g. Helmann's); contains egg and mustard
Gravy Granules (e.g. Bisto) contains celery; soybean and gluten (wheat)
Hummus; contains sesame
Batter Mix, for example, 3663 Golden Batter Mix; contains soybean
Lupin is used as a flour in pies, pasta, batter mix, etc.

In addition, soybeans, nuts, gluten and milk products are contained in many commercial baking mixes, biscuits, ice creams, processed meats, sauces, etc.

Surely A Tiny Amount Of An Allergen Won't Hurt, Will It?

In two recent studies, more than 20% of restaurant workers who responded thought that it would be OK for a customer with an allergy to eat a 'small amount' of the food in question. This is completely wrong.

Unfortunately, when it comes to allergies, restaurant staff can be well-meaning but are generally uninformed. Almost 40% were under the impression that a glass of water would be sufficient to alleviate an allergic reaction. It isn't.

Therefore, it is essential that you arm your staff with the information that they will need in order to protect you and your customers.

What Could Happen If I Served My Customer Food Containing Ingredients To Which They Are Allergic?

In a susceptible person, exposure to even a tiny amount of a specific allergen can trigger anaphylactic shock. Quite understandably, caterers often don't realise how serious this condition can be.

Symptoms include:

Swelling in the face, throat or mouth
Difficulty breathing
Sudden drop in blood pressure
Skin rash
Nausea and anxiety

In rare cases, anaphylaxis can be life threatening. Clearly, you do not want to find yourself in the position of having previously informed a susceptible diner that their chosen dish was allergen free.

Is It Likely That A Customer Will Take Legal Action Against Me?

In May of last year, Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurant business was fined £8000 and ordered to pay £9212 in costs under Food Safety legislation after a coeliac customer was not served the gluten-free meal that she requested.

The general consensus is that it is very likely that a number of high profile restaurants will be targeted in order to bring home to the Industry that this legislation must be taken seriously.

Could I Be In Danger From Opportunistic Customers?

As we can see from the Jamie's Italian case, it is not easy for a restaurant to defend a case brought by a disgruntled customer.

Of course, there is no question that Mrs Richardson, the plaintiff in this case, suffered a serious allergic reaction to the food that she was served at Jamie's.

However, it is wise to bear in mind that a minority of your customers may not be totally scrupulous and could well be tempted to try their luck and initiate a case against you whether they suffer harm or not.

Therefore, you must make absolutely sure that you are fully protected against every possibility.

What About Damage To My Reputation?

As well as the financial penalties that you will suffer if you are successfully prosecuted, your reputation will also take a serious hit because the implication will be that you are not concerned about the welfare of your customer.

Of course, this not likely to be true in your case. However, public perception is everything and there is no shortage of people who will gleefully spread the word.

You only need to witness the widespread press coverage that the Jamie Oliver case received to see how easily a reputation can be damaged.

How Must I Make Allergen Information Available To My Customers?

The information can be supplied on the menu, on chalk boards or provided verbally by a member of staff. However, if the information is provided verbally, it must be backed up in writing at a customer's request in a form that is clear and conspicuous, easily visible and legible.

Supposing I Don't Know Whether Or Not The Food I Serve Contains Allergens?

It will no longer be acceptable for you to say that they do not know whether or not a food contains one of the  allergens nor will it be sufficient for you to say that your dish 'may' contain allergens.

Allergen information must be specific to the food being served and it must accurate and unambiguous.

Is The New Legislation Going To Be Actively Enforced?

Yes. It will be the responsibility of Trading Standards officers to enforce the legislation. Non-compliance will be a criminal offence and may lead to prosecution and a fine of up to £5,000.

However, it is not unusual for an establishment that falls foul of other health and safety legislation to be prosecuted for more than a single offence. We believe that the same guidelines will apply to this legislation.

You must be aware that if you are successfully prosecuted under the legisation, the sky could be the limit.

As well as the financial penalties, there could be a serious risk of damage to your reputation.

The Chances Of My Restaurant Being Inspected Are Pretty Low, Right?

It is true that you may not be inspected in the near future but it is only a matter of time.

Furthermore, you may also be at risk from whistleblowers.

If you have a disaffected worker on your payroll, you run the very real risk of being reported for non-compliance with the legislation.

Whistleblowing is often used as a tool of revenge against employers and is actively encouraged by Government agencies.

If you are in any doubt, take a look at the www.pcaw.org.uk home page, which states:

Public Concern at Work, the whistleblowing charity, is the leading authority in the field. We aim to protect society by encouraging workplace whistleblowing

Don't make yourself an easy target for disgruntled staff.

How Many Of My Customers Are Susceptible To Allergies Anyway?

Allergy UK states that 2% of UK adults have been diagnosed with a specific food allergy and an estimated 45% of the population suffers from some kind of food intolerance. These figures are growing as allergies of all kinds are on the increase.

According to the Anaphylaxis Campaign charity, people who believe that they are food intolerant would be willing to spend more on food if it was perceived as being of higher value because nutritional information was provided to them.

Is There Any Upside For Me To This Legislation?

Yes, there is.

The legislation could help you to tap into one of several hidden markets worth an estimated £100 million per annum in the UK alone?

For example, a Coeliac is a person who cannot tolerate gluten, which is one of the allergens covered by the legislation. Gluten causes the immune system to produce antibodies that attack the delicate lining of the small intestine. Wheat, which contains gluten, is a common, and very often hidden, ingredient on most menus, Therefore, a Coeliac cannot risk eating out and being accidently exposed to a meal that contains gluten. 

In a recent survey, 74% of Coeliac UK members said they would eat out at least every two weeks if they could be guaranteed a gluten-free menu option. The survey goes on to say that these people would eat out with a couple of friends, not necessarily Coeliacs, who would be happy to spend an average of £20 per head.

By providing the necessary information clearly in an understandable manner, you will attract new customers, such as Coeliacs.

Will This Be The End To Allergen Legislation?

No. It is expected that the list of allergens will be systematically re-examined and updated where necessary on the basis of the most recent scientific knowledge.

How Can I Comply With The Legislation

MenuAnalyser can provide you will all the support that you will need in order to comply with the legislation.

To discuss how I can help your staff to improve your resident's well-being, call me on 0800-0209173 or click here to send me a message.

Call us today to discover how we can help you and your business.

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