Food allergies appear to be on the rise worldwide, with between 6% and 8% of New Zealand children and 2% to 4% of Kiwi adults having an allergy to at least one food, according to Allergy NZ. Even the slightest traces of allergens in food products can have a fatal outcome for customers having a food allergy. Severe allergic reactions of customers cannot only threaten their lives but also the affected food company’s reputation. Proper allergen management is, therefore, a big issue in the food industry, as it protects customers, who have adverse reactions to certain food ingredients, but also the brand of the food business.
A food allergy is when the body shows an allergic reaction to a food protein, triggered by an overreaction of the immune system. The over-production of certain antibodies causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction. These symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening reactions that need instant medical treatment.
MPI states that eight foods are responsible for 90% of all allergic reactions to food: egg, cow's milk, peanuts, soy, fish, seafood, wheat, and tree nuts. However, more than 160 different foods ranging from avocado through kiwifruit and legumes to spices are known to be able to cause allergic reactions. Foods that cause allergic reactions are commonly called allergens. Already small traces of these allergens can cause allergic reactions. It is important to know that some elements of these foods, such as whey protein found in milk or gluten found in wheat, are also classified as allergens.
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code mandates food businesses to declare the existence of the 10 following allergens on their product labels: gluten, crustacea, egg, fish, milk, peanuts, soybeans, sesame seeds, tree nuts or lupin. However, regulations on mandatory allergen declaration vary from country to country.
It is vital for food businesses to take full control over allergy risks in their facilities by implementing allergen management. The identification and awareness of allergens, preventative controls, and training of staff are ways how restaurants and cafes can improve their allergen management. It goes without saying that proper storage, labelling and handling of allergens as well as cleaning of facilities and utensils are imperative to ensure customer safety. Receiving complete ingredient information from suppliers is key to ensure full visibility of allergens.
Several international studies revealed that restaurant staff show a significant gap in food allergy knowledge and even poor attitudes towards these allergies. Food allergy education helps food businesses fill these gaps. Moreover, regular training of staff on the latest regulations and best practices enables them to confidently communicate with and serve customers with food allergies. Trained chefs know how to avoid cross-contamination during food preparation and which meals on the menu can be prepared allergen-free. And educated waiting staff can assist customers in choosing allergen-free dishes. In addition, labelling allergens on the menu can assist customers in making allergen-safe food choices.
Food service businesses need to document and validate their cleaning and training procedures to ensure that effective processes are in place to protect customers with food allergies. Cloud-based food safety solutions such as iMonitor’s Food Safety Plan digitize these processes.
Digitized documentation and training facilitate the food safety processes for food businesses significantly. The centralized storage of all data gives 24/7 visibility on allergens, their appropriate handling, and staff training. Easy and quick access to standard operating procedures and training modules help staff to increase awareness and perform their tasks. Furthermore, automatic alerts remind employees of upcoming or overdue food safety jobs, facilitating food safety culture among staff.
You can download your free allergen awareness poster here.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently developing additional recordkeeping requirements for businesses along the supply chain to enhance the traceability of potentially contaminated food products. These practices shall intensify the tracking and tracing of certain foods to ensure fast and effective traceability processes in case of potential recalls. The FDA aims to foster the rapid and effective identification of the contaminated foods’ recipients to mitigate or prevent foodborne illness outbreaks or serious adverse health consequences for consumers.