Food and drink businesses have a legal requirement to give allergen information on the goods and products they sell. Not giving this information can have serious consequences.
Here, we run through what small businesses need to know about giving guidance on allergens.
- How to start your own catering business
- Four legal obligations that businesses might not be aware of
- A guide to health and safety for small businesses
- What does business insurance cover?
Registering your business
First things first – you need to register with your local authority at least 28 days before you start trading, or before you start food operations. Food operations include selling food, cooking food, storing or handling food, preparing food, and distributing food.
What are the major allergens?
There are 14 major foods that can cause allergic reactions. If you make prepacked and non-prepacked food and drink products that contain any of these allergens, you need to declare them. The allergens are:
- cereals that contain gluten – including wheat (such as spelt and Khorasan), rye, barley, and oats
- crustaceans – such as prawns, crabs, and lobsters
- molluscs – such as mussels and oysters
- tree nuts – including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and macadamia nuts
- sesame seeds
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they’re at a concentration of more than ten parts per million)
It’s your responsibility to be clear about the allergens your products contain, and it’s your customer’s responsibility to tell you about their allergy or intolerance.
The Food Standards Agency say you should record information about the ingredients you use in your food and drink products. This needs to contain product specification sheets, ingredients labels, and recipes or explanations of the dishes you serve.
Food labelling regulations
Prepacked food and drink
Prepacked products have been packaged before being sold to customers. With these goods, there’s no opportunity to communicate with customers before they buy, or change the contents without opening the packaging.
The Food Standards Agency say that all prepacked food needs labelling with mandatory information, including the name of the food, the ingredients, and whether it contains any of the 14 allergens (or processing aids causing allergies and intolerances).
You have to present the allergen information so it stands out from the rest of the ingredients – for example, using bold font or a different colour.
Plus, if there’s a risk of cross-contamination, for instance where a factory makes both nut and non-nut products, you need to declare that the product may contain the allergen (only after a thorough risk assessment has proven the risk can’t be removed).
Non-prepacked food and drink, or loose foods
This is everything that’s not been prepacked, along with food wrapped on the same site it’s sold.
If, for example, you’re a caterer and make non-prepacked food, you’re not legally required to label it.
But you do need to give clear allergen advice to your customers in an obvious place, like a menu. The allergen information can be written down or communicated verbally (but verbal information should be backed up in writing regardless).
The Food Standards Agency lay out these rules for declaring allergens in loose foods:
- You should provide information about the allergens used
- It should be available in writing or by speaking to staff
- Logos or symbols can be used when accompanied by words and numbers on menus
The information should be easily accessible and accurate, consistent and verifiable. If it’s not provided upfront, you should signpost where customers can find it.
Clear and consistent communication
Getting food labelling and allergen information wrong can be life threatening, so it’s important it’s clear and correct.
This means communicating with suppliers, staff, and your customers to make sure all the ingredients in the products you sell are recorded, and to make sure people with allergies are notified about what’s in the products they buy.
What’s more, having clear information about allergens can be good for business. Research from the Food Standards Agency found that 59 per cent of young people go back to the same food outlet if they’ve eaten safely there before.
There are a few ways to make it easier for customers to find out what’s in the food they’re buying:
- Train staff about allergens and how to check whether customers have allergies, ensuring they can give clear information
- Make sure all your recipes, menus, and labels have upfront information about the ingredients you use
- Have a process in place to update your information when you make changes to your recipes, letting staff know about the new ingredients
- Know your kitchen and the way you prepare food inside out, and keep the risk of cross-contamination low. If cross-contamination can’t be avoided, tell your customers about the risk
There’s lots of guidance on the Food Standards Agency’s own website, which we recommend reading to make sure you’re completely clued up. You could also consider getting professional advice to make sure you have all the legal bases covered.
What can insurance cover?
Having public liability insurance in place can protect you if someone does suffer an allergic reaction after consuming your products.
It won’t cover you if you’ve been negligent and not followed food hygiene or labelling regulations. But if you’ve followed the rules and a customer has a reaction to something that didn’t need to be disclosed, public liability insurance can cover the resulting claim and compensation costs.
Is there anything more you want to know about allergen information? Let us know in the comments below.