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Allergen Series (3) Allergen incidents - What to do and look out for

View profile for Rebecca Ironmonger
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One of the most common breaches of the Food Hygiene Regulations is in respect of incidents involving allergens. In this blog, our Food Regulatory Team discusses the law, what to look for in your business and what to do if you have an allergen incident.

Food allergies are increasingly common and so regulations concerning allergens and their labelling are reviewed and updated on a regular basis. The basic rule is that you cannot place unsafe food onto the market. If you do not label food correctly in accordance with the regulations, including correctly identifying any allergens which are in the food products, the food will be deemed unsafe. To place such a product on the market is a criminal offence.

There are 14 major allergens which must be declared where it is present in the ingredients or was a processing aid. The declaration must be on the label, or where there is no packaging or where there is no regulation which requires a declaration on the label, the details must be available on request. The 14 major allergens are celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, soya, and sulphur dioxide.

Examples of breaches of these requirements include:

  • Adding an ingredient to a product which is or contains an allergen and not declaring it on the label or on request
  • Failing to declare all allergens in a product
  • Failing to emphasise the allergens in an ingredient list, where required
  • Failing to provide a full ingredient list, where required

The consequences to consumers of a breach of the allergen regulations can be severe:  ranging from a mild reaction to death in extreme cases.  It is therefore very important to ensure your processes, labelling and staff training is up to scratch. The vast majority of allergen incidents will not be a result of incompetence, but instead because of human error.  Whilst human error can never be completely avoided, there are things you can do to avoid breaching the rules.  Look out next week for our Top 5 tips for preventing an allergen incident.

Case study

To illustrate the potential issues see the below case study.

Our client was a food business operator which produced made to order hot meals from a set menu. All management staff were trained in Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, but not all were trained in allergen awareness. Allergens were declared on the online menu, where customers would purchase their meals. The Council had audited the food business and had declared that their allergen processes were good and compliant.

One day there were two meals on the main menu – one with chicken and one with Quorn. The chicken meal was to contain cheese (allergen: milk) and the Quorn meal was not. The only differences between the meals was that the vegan version had Quorn and was not to contain cheese. The member of kitchen staff on duty that day cooked the chicken meal first, cleaned and sanitised the area and then made the Quorn meal. Unfortunately, that employee accidentally sprinkled cheese on the Quorn meal.

The Quorn meal had no declaration that it contained the allergen milk. Therefore, when the Quorn meals were sent to customers, those meals were deemed to be unsafe. Thankfully in this case, the only customer with a severe milk allergy noticed the cheese and did not eat the meal. No customers were harmed. There was however a risk of harm.

We advised our client in respect of the criminal investigation and prosecution. Our client pleaded guilty and we were able to mitigate well so that the fine was reduced down from a potential of over £100,000 to only £10,000.

The main lesson from this case is that the better your procedures the more likely it is that you will be able to prevent an incident. However, it is worth remembering that your business is only as good as your least competent employee on any given day. Appropriate training and refresher training is one of the best ways to ensure that your staff are up to date with not only your processes and procedures but also the legal requirements concerning allergens. 

If you have any concerns about your allergen processes or if you have experienced an allergen incident in your business, please contact the Regulatory Team who would be happy to help.