New Allergen Guidance expected for Restaurants and Cafes

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is backing calls for 'Owen's Law' and will introduce guidance for food businesses of non-prepacked foods ie cafes and restaurants, on how best to provide written allergen information.

Currently, the rules regarding the provision of allergen information are set out in the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) Regulation No. 1169/2011: for non-prepacked food (such food served in restaurants and cafes) the information on the presence of any of the 14 allergens must be made available to consumers.  This information can be provided either in a written format (for example allergen information on a menu) or orally.  If a Food Business Operator (FBO) chooses not to provide written information there must be signposting to direct the consumer to where this information can be found, such as asking a member of staff.

Written information can provide a high level of detail but is relatively static (it takes time to change a menu).  Over-reliance by consumers and businesses could result in dynamic risks such as cross contamination or substitutions not being fully communicated and understood.  Research shows this can be pertinent for SMEs where changes of ingredients can be frequent.  This increases the potential for mistakes when information is not updated correctly. 

Written allergen information informs consumers about which dishes they should definitely avoid based on intended ingredients but will not inform them if the other dishes have ingredient substitutions or might have unintended contaminants.  These limitations have important implications for safety.

Conversations between the business and its customers are much more dynamic and can capture changes in the moment, including specific needs and potential solutions.  However, they put a lot of responsibility onto servers to remember to pass on information, and to ensure that the information they provide is accurate and up to date.

The FSA Board has agreed that they would like to see written allergen information be mandated in the non-prepacked sector. 

In addition to providing written information, the Board also acknowledged that there should be an 'expectation' for a verbal conversation to take place between customers and food business staff, to ensure an added layer of protection for consumers.

The Board feel that we should set an expectation that food businesses like coffee shops and restaurants provide allergen information in writing as well as having a conversation… to maximise the likelihood of this happening, written information should be a legal requirement, rather than just guidance.’  Professor Susan Jebb, Chair on the FSA

In the meantime, the FSA will work to develop 'strong guidance' for food businesses on how to provide written allergen information to help drive up compliance and make it easier for people with a food allergy, intolerance and coeliac disease to protect themselves when eating out. Whilst this does not go as far as 'Owen’s Law' campaigned (that would require restaurants to put all information about allergens in their food on the face of their main menu) it is a  significant development for the hospitality industry.

FSA Board agrees to strengthen allergy information for consumers | Food Standards Agency

Summary:  Currently the legislation provides for the statutory obligations FBO's are obliged to undertake; however with this strong steer and expected guidance from the FSA those FBO's serving non-prepacked food should be alert to the format and guidance with which they provide their allergen information to customers.

There is an overriding duty to provide only food that is safe to eat and implement appropriate food safety management procedures.  What those procedures are and whether an FBO has carried out all reasonable precautions to ensure food safety is critical. The application of any standards or guidance provided by the FSA will help to establish this duty is met even before any legislation is formally enacted. 

It is important that any premises serving non-prepacked food regularly review all risk assessment and hazard analysis critical control points with food safety and allergen management in mind.  Key steps might include auditing current allergen information systems, enhancing staff training in allergen awareness, and integrating robust allergen management tools to ensure the clearest reasonable visibility of allergen information to customers.

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