Providing Accurate Allergen Information Challenges Foodservice Operations
The number of people with food allergies is not clear. The US Centre for Disease Control (US CDC) states that it is 4 in every 100 people and others, such as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), state that it is 3 in every 100.
With a global population of about 7.5 billion people these figures suggest that 225 to 300 million people have food allergies and require accurate information about food products to avoid suffering an allergic reaction.
In manufacturing or packaging operations, ensuring that allergens are properly labeled is complex, yet manufacturers’ formulations are fairly stable. By contrast, food service and restaurant operations are more complex, more challenging. Staff should be well trained in allergen handling and labeling, food production should be scheduled, or the environment designed to reduce contamination risk, with allergen free areas, special equipment and tools. Formulation controls should be set up for production of allergenic items and there should be time to test products/ingredients for allergens. Even with these controls and the availability of testing for multiple allergens at the same time using next generation sequencing (NGS), still 25% to 30% of recalls in the USA are because of an undeclared allergen.1
In Ireland, the FSAI audited 50 food service businesses2 to identify whether they were meeting legal requirements that they provide customers with accurate written information relating to the 14 most common allergens.
The results were disappointing. Fewer than 8% of those audited provided accurate information to customers. Roughly 32% of the businesses did not provide any written allergen information and of those that did provide the information only about 24% of them provided accurate information. Of the establishments audited, 26 omitted foodstuffs from the written information or incorrectly recorded the allergen content of the food. Most establishments (88%) had to perform corrective actions.
US food service survey
In a survey of restaurant establishments in six locations – California, Minnesota, New York, New York City, Rhode Island and Tennessee3 – auditors interviewed managers, food workers and servers. Roughly 45% of the managers, 41% of the food workers and 33% of the servers stated that they had received allergen training. Of those that were trained, basic training was adequate, as they had received training in case a customer had a food allergy, on how to identify the eight major allergens and in the prevention of cross contact. Few people had received training about menu items with food allergens, the symptoms of an allergic reaction and what to do if a customer had a severe allergic reaction.
Of the managers questioned about ingredient or recipe lists for menu items, 55% reported that they had them for most items, 18% for some items and 25% had no lists. Dedicated utensils or equipment for allergen free food were reported by 19% of managers. Special areas for preparing allergen free food were indicated in 8% of cases, a special area for cooking in 10% of cases and a special pick-up area for those with food allergens was found in 7% of cases. The lack of ingredient or recipe lists in 25% of these restaurants creates a problem in conveying allergen information to those that need it and the lack of dedicated utensils, equipment and/or areas to produce allergen free food makes it difficult to prevent cross-contamination.
Food allergy deaths
In the United States 30,000 emergency room visits and 150-200 deaths are attributed to food allergy reactions annually. Almost half of the fatal cases are caused by food from a restaurant or food service establishment.
Auditing and mystery shopping can verify compliance with regulations and training, at any time. Samples can be taken and products tested using NGS to measure 20 allergens simultaneously, to verify that lists of allergens are correct. Training is available as is consultancy for facility sites, to assist with the reduction or elimination of allergen risks.
For the complete range of SGS services and support visit SGS Food Safety.
For further information contact:
Global Food Inspection Technical Manager
t: +1 973-461-1493
SGS is the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company. SGS is recognized as the global benchmark for quality and integrity. With more than 90,000 employees, SGS operates a network of over 2,000 offices and laboratories around the world.