On 13 December 2014, the Food Information to Consumers Regulations (FIC) came into force. Since then food businesses have been required to provide information to consumers on whether any of the 14 known allergens are or may be in foods.
The regulations, branded by some top chefs as a “bureaucratic nightmare”, were met with consternation by the hospitality industry but, one year on, how are pub food businesses faring in the face of these still relatively new requirements?
“Some pubs are doing extremely well and are implementing controls to manage allergens, with some pub chains embracing the issue to an extent that it has become a marketing bonus. However, there are others who are not yet up to speed”
- Dr Lisa Ackerley
While a survey carried out by the British Hospitality Association (BHA) earlier this year found that 98% of its members had put into place measures to comply with the regulations, reports suggest that food-serving pubs are lagging behind the rest of the food industry when it comes to allergen labelling.
“Some pubs are doing extremely well and are implementing controls to manage allergens, with some pub chains embracing the issue to an extent that it has become a marketing bonus. However, there are others who are not yet up to speed,” says Dr Lisa Ackerley, the organisation’s food safety adviser.
Online research from Food Allergy Aware has ranked large chains and smaller independent restaurants fairly evenly in terms of the quality of the allergen information they provide to customers (72% and 73% respectively were rated average, good or excellent), while the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) has found compliance within the industry to be variable, with national chains faring better.
“National chains are, on the whole, complying more consistently than independently-owned businesses,” explains David Pickering, the CTSI’s lead officer for food and nutrition. “Independently-owned businesses often don’t have the infrastructure and capacity to achieve compliance proactively, so many local authorities are working with them to support their path to compliance,” he adds.
Yet Teresa Dupay, founder of the company Menu Analyser, has found that demand for the company’s recipe analysis service has remained fairly static since the regulations were introduced. “Many businesses tend to bury their heads in the sand and assume they are somehow exempt or are unlikely to be prosecuted for non-compliance. This is not the case,” she explains.
While there is a general consensus that chefs are up against it when it comes to keeping abreast of all the legislation they face, some experts believe compliance is easier than many businesses perceive. “Some businesses don’t understand how simple it could be to comply,” says the BHA’s Ackerley and according to Mike Law, senior technologist for FoodChain Training Courses. “A failure to really understand the allergen issue, along with inadequate training, has led some to fall foul of local authority enforcement officers.”
A drain on resources
While the methodical, ingredient-by-ingredient approach to allergen labelling, advocated by many experts, is undoubtedly a drain on resources for time-poor kitchens, the potential consequences of and sanctions for non-compliance makes it a cost that food businesses simply can’t afford to ignore.
According to the CTSI, the preferred method for local authorities to achieve compliance is through advice and, if necessary, improvement notices, with prosecution being a last resort. However, failure to comply with allergen information requirements can still be dealt with from the outset as a criminal prosecution, attracting substantial fines per offence. For example, since March 2015, under section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Fines on Summary Conviction), magistrates in England and Wales can use their discretion to impose fines of an unlimited amount. Previously, there was a maximum amount of £5,000.
“Many businesses don’t think they can afford the costs involved, but with this [unlimited] level of fine per offence, how can they afford not to? The financial cost of non-compliance could be horrific,” warns Dupay.
Others, such as Ackerley, believe the bigger cost of non-compliance could be the damage to a business’s reputation. “Customers may vote with their feet, with those who are severely allergic investigating in advance to see where it is safe to eat.”
CTSI’s Pickering advises businesses to use the wealth of materials available via the Food Standards Agency (FSA), local authorities, trade associations, charities and suppliers to better understand what they need to do to comply. “Then apply the principles to your business and make them work in the best way.”
For Fiona Kibby, director of the Society of Food Hygiene and Technology (SOFHT), staff training is of vital importance. “Training should result in staff being confident in answering questions on allergens. They should not be expected to remember their training word-for-word, but be provided with accessible, concise and easy-to-understand reference information about the food they are serving,” she says.
Kibby also advocates training staff to deal with allergen enquiries beyond the scope of the 2014 legislation. “Many people suffer from allergies to products that are not included in the FIC, such as strawberries or kiwi fruit, so it’s important for both pub caterers and staff serving food to be trained to deal with these types of enquiries too.”
Risk of cross-contamination
FoodChain’s Law warns that training should not be confined solely to the provision of allergen information, but should extend to the risks of cross-contamination with “staff being trained in the correct handling of food to minimise any cross-contamination”.
While more and more chefs are opting to take control by making everything in-house, for some this is not possible. Menu Analyser’s Dupay advises chefs to choose their suppliers carefully, establish good relationships with them and walk away from those who prove unreliable. “I have come across many instances where a supplier’s information has been wrong or unhelpful or where a supplier regularly substitutes products.”
While 50% of BHA members recently reported improved detail from suppliers on delivery slips and food labels, Dupay advises chefs to be vigilant. “A good supplier will let you know if there have been any changes to the ingredients list of a product, but check back with them on a regular basis.”
Meanwhile, “it’s unlikely there will be major changes in the base legislation with regard to allergens”, predicts Mike Law. “Although, it is possible that further allergens — such as kiwi fruit, for example — may be added to the current list of the 14 known allergens in the future.”
Dupay also warns that food businesses are likely to be required to include nutritional information, such as calories, fat, sugar, salt, protein and carbohydrate content, on their menus in the not-too-distant future. “Rather than look on this as an onerous task, the pub trade should see it as a positive development for their industry, providing them with the opportunity to tap into a hidden market,” she urges.
With the use of ‘may contain’ statements continuing to attract interest, particularly where they are used as a blanket method of disclaiming responsibility for possible cross-contamination as well as known risks, the BHA, along with other organisations, will be campaigning for a solution that makes this type of labelling clearer. Such initiatives, explains Law, are likely to be voluntary, as allergen cross-contamination does not give rise to a specific offence in food law but rather a general offence of selling unsafe food (unsafe for a specific sector of the population).
The FSA issued guidance on the use of ‘may contain’ statements several years ago, and in September 2015 the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Institute of Food Safety, Integrity and Protection published a white paper on improving the use of ‘may contain’ allergen statements. This is intended to promote awareness and discussion of the problem, together with advice and guidance on best practice and access to further sources of information on the topic.
The 14 known allergens
- Cereals containing gluten
- Sulphur dioxide at levels above 10mg/kg or 10mg/litre