December 2014 saw new food regulations come into force. Alan Field looks at what FMs need to know to ensure their catering operation is up to scratch.

On 13 December 2014 new regulations came into force (the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation 1169/2011), known in the UK as the Food Information Regulations 2014 (FIR). The main focus about the FIR so far has been discussion about allergy information for the consumer. However, this is only one element of the regulations. They will also consolidate and clarify broader labelling and information requirements, such as the description of foodstuffs, including the origin of meat.

However, the key practical implications of the regulations are that all food service providers in the UK will be obliged to accurately track, record and communicate to the public the 14 most common foodstuffs that cause allergic reactions or, in other words, are allergenic ingredients. This will include canteens and other workplace catering.

While many food providers were already providing all or most of this information, there is now an obligation to do so in every case. This may be a significant change. It will also create some potentially complex management issues, including the training and supervision of staff in what is — sometimes — a relatively low skilled workforce with a high churn rate.

The main menu

Some allergenic ingredients, such as milk and nuts, may only reflect a very small constituent ingredient of a food or drink product, and with mass produced meals the quantities of these ingredients may change or be substituted at any time. This means that the catering contractor will also be obliged to be aware of any recipe changes that may make changes to any of the 14 allergenic ingredients.

What are these 14 allergenic ingredients? The regulations define them as cereals containing gluten (such as wheat and barley), eggs, fish, peanuts (which, botanically, are not nuts), sesame seeds, nuts (such as walnuts and pistachio — whether they be in a natural or processed form, including powdered), soybeans, milk (including lactose), celery (including celeriac), mustard, sulphur dioxide (sometimes included within the ingredient described as sulphites and found in many liquid beverages), lupin (often presented in a powdered form and used in some forms of baking), crustaceans (such as prawns and crabs) and molluscs (such as squid and oysters).

The FM provider, either directly or through a catering contractor, will need to ensure that management systems are in place that enable compliance with these new regulations. There are criminal penalties for non-compliance as well as the greater potential for civil liability claims. This is even before customer relationship issues are factored in.

The NHS calculates that 1–2% of adults in the UK suffer from a food allergy (rising to up to 8% for children), so this is not an insignificant issue. In a very large workplace this represents a significant number and an equally significant exposure that needs to be managed.

It should also be remembered that some allergic reactions to food can lead to death or life-changing illness in the customer — it is not just a minor rash or stomach upset!

Relatively minor symptoms are more likely to suggest that the customer has a food intolerance rather than an allergic reaction, typically caused by a lack of a specific digestive enzyme. Food reactions can have a slower onset, do not involve the immune system and may not be life threatening. The percentage of the population with food intolerances is also higher and the range of foods that can cause them is much wider than the 14 most common foodstuffs that can cause allergic reactions. However, the regulations only apply to these 14 allergic ingredients, although in some individuals these same foodstuffs might also cause intolerances. The important issue is that many of the same management processes and risk controls can be adapted to minimise the risks relating to both scenarios.

It is not just about customers making informed choices, it is also making sure the catering contractor has constantly updated, accurate information to enable this duty to be fulfilled consistently.

The main menu

While most suppliers of prepared foods are already providing detailed information about ingredients to their catering customers, the obligation is now on the food service provider to know what is in the food supplied to them.

While there is no change to the regulations concerning pre-packed food (where, in theory, the food supplier will be advising the catering contractor already, sometimes through labelling or online sources) the definition of non-pre-packed food that comes under the regulations will impact on the catering trade.

Non-pre-packed food sounds like loose food. However, in a catering environment, this also applies to foods ready for consumption without further preparation by the customer. This includes cooked and cold meals served in a staff restaurant or purchased as a takeaway from them.

This has a number of implications that an FM contractor needs to consider. Chiefly, the procurement process that a catering contractor undertakes will need to be kept under review to ensure it maintains an acceptable level of compliance risk. The following points should be borne in mind.

  • The regulations may lead to more business being offered to reputable suppliers who have a reliable system in place for ensuring accurate information is in place and information regarding recipes and ingredients is updated regularly. Procurement processes and decisions will become more important, depending on the type and volume of meals provided to the end customers.

  • Equally, the catering contractor needs to have a system to seek, review and update its own records, so if there is a sudden recipe change from the supplier then this will be identified and communicated to staff and customers. Some food suppliers, such as Bidvest 3663, have done considerable work to ensure that their customers can understand the new regulations. This will be especially important with prepared dishes or methods such as "sous vide", where catering staff may see no obvious change to the recipe unless they are advised about it before it is served to a customer.

  • While some EU countries are requiring that all menus should now show any allergens in food, this is not the UK's position and the focus will be on staff training. This means that kitchen, food preparation and waiting staff (including those on service counters in a staff restaurant) need to be able to answer customers’ questions. Time will tell, but using the menu board as the main source of allergy information — especially in a busy workplace environment — will become standard, as it is already in many instances.

  • The contractor will also need to review their operational controls. For example, the British Hospitality Association has advised its members to be aware of how cross-contamination may impact on compliance with the regulations. This would include, say, a kitchen ventilation system transferring nut particles onto other foodstuffs or, say, in a salad bar where utensils used to serve one foodstuff are then used to serve another foodstuff that has allergens. Potentially, this is an even greater risk where there is a self-service bar and a customer may inadvertently cross-contaminate utensils. The contractor also needs to ensure that food packaging cannot be cross-contaminated, eg a sandwich being put in a polystyrene box that may have been inadvertently exposed to particles of wheat or nuts.

Conclusion

The key action is to talk to your contractor(s) and see what work they have done so far to meet the FIR requirements. It is also something to discuss with your customers (be these internal or external). After all, it is their staff, contractors and, perhaps, even customers who could have health issues from eating in the staff restaurant. In addition, there could be wider reputational and compliance implications.

Last reviewed 4 February 2015