Allergy awareness: stay on top of food safety

Photo of a health & safety expert checking kitchen equipment and machinery is adequate

Food business operators in the retail and catering sector are required to provide allergen information and follow labelling rules as set out in food law.

This means that they must:

  • provide allergen information to the consumer for both prepacked and non-prepacked food and drink
  • handle and manage food allergens effectively in food preparation
  • make sure that staff receive training on allergens

However, it's not just about ensuring your business is compliant from a customer perspective. Employers have a duty of care to keep their employees safe too, regardless of the industry they operate within. Volunteers, students and contractors should also be considered when assessing allergen risks.

There are a number of prominent allergies that food businesses should factor into their risk assessments, such as those to common food and drink including eggs, fish and shellfish, peanuts, milk, soya and mustard.

Labelling requirements

Under UK food law, food businesses must inform customers if any food they provide contains any of the following 14 allergens: Celery; cereals containing gluten (such as barley and oats); crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters); eggs; fish; lupin; milk, molluscs (such as mussels and oysters); mustard; peanuts; sesame; soybeans; sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million); and tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).

A customer may of course be allergic or have an intolerance to other ingredients, but only the above 14 allergens must be declared as allergens under food law. This also applies to additives, processing aids and any other substances that are present in the final product.

Different allergen labelling rules apply depending on how the food is provided, ie whether it is prepacked (any food put into packaging before being placed on sale) or non-prepacked (loose food).

Allergen information must be in writing if you sell or provide food to your customers directly and can be demonstrated through:

  • full allergen information on a menu, chalkboard or in an information pack
  • a written notice placed in a clearly visible position explaining how your customers can obtain this information

When allergen information is provided as part of a conversation with a customer, this should be backed up by written information to ensure that it is accurate and consistent. More information is available via the Food Standards Agency website.

Spotting and reacting to anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction that can be fatal.

Severe symptoms include a swollen tongue, difficulty breathing or becoming unconscious, and usually develop suddenly, often within minutes of being exposed to an allergy trigger such as a particular food, latex, insect stings or certain drugs.

The following signs should help you recognise a potentially life-threatening reaction:

  • Airway: persistent cough, hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing, swollen tongue
  • Breathing: difficult or noisy breathing, wheeze or persistent cough
  • Consciousness: persistent dizziness or appearing pale or floppy, suddenly sleepy, collapse, unconsciousness

There is no cure for anaphylaxis; people at risk must manage their condition and carry adrenaline, a life-saving emergency medication. The Human Medicines Regulations (2012) state that any lay person can administer adrenaline for the purpose of saving a life.

Employer responsibilities

Employers should ensure they undertake a risk assessment and are aware of which employees have allergies. Controls such as creating a safe area for food to be stored to avoid any cross-contamination risk and ensuring the workplace is adequately ventilated are important, as allergens can potentially be airborne.

Employee responsibilities

It is a good idea for employees to have their own allergy action plan to cover the specific allergen, symptoms and actions required. They should let their colleagues know where to locate their adrenaline auto injector (AAI) and always carry two in line with NHS guidance.

Employees who suffer with allergies could ask colleagues to label food they bring in and not to eat known allergens within their workspace. They can also sign up to allergy alerts for product recalls relevant to their food allergy.

Further information and training courses are available from:

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