Food labelling laws state that food companies must always declare the presence of 14 major allergens when they appear in pre-packed food, and these must be highlighted in the ingredients list (for example, in bold type). A key message is that people with food allergies must read the ingredient list every time they buy a product, even if they have bought it before. Recipes sometimes change.
Warning labels stating that a product “may contain” a particular allergen, such as nuts, are infuriating because they limit choice and make shopping complicated, but often these warnings are there for a reason because of the risks of cross-contamination during the production chain. Our advice to people is clear: Don’t ignore these warnings. You may eat a product numerous times without having a reaction but the next time you may not be so lucky. Cross-contamination can be intermittent.
In the Home
Preparing food for someone with a severe food allergy can be challenging, but managing the risk is a matter of common sense. Simple meals, using fresh meat and vegetables, avoids many of the pitfalls that sometimes arise with packaged foods.
As a household you may decide to give up the offending food, banning it from entering the home. This will guard against mistakes being made and avoid cross-contamination.
If you choose not to ban the allergenic food, be scrupulous about keeping risky foods apart from the safe ones. Wash your hands, cutlery and utensils to prevent cross-contamination. Use plenty of soapy water. To be on the safe side, use separate crockery, cutlery and chopping boards for different foods. Avoid splatters and spillages by covering food up.
Food businesses selling catered food (for example in restaurants, takeaways and hotels) are required by law to provide information on major allergenic ingredients. This information can be provided in writing and/or orally. If information is provided orally, the food business will need to ensure that there is some sort of written signage that is clearly visible, to indicate that allergen information is available from a member of staff. Systems should also be in place to ensure that, if requested, the information given orally is supported in a recorded form (in writing for example) to ensure consistency and accuracy.
You need to ask about allergens before you place an order, some example questions;
- I have an allergy to X, can you cater for this?
- Can I see the allergen information?
- Can I, or can you, speak to the chef about how my meal is prepared?
- How is cross-contamination of my allergen prevented?
- Can you make a note about my allergy on my order?
- Can you confirm this meal is free from my allergen?
If you don’t feel confident that a food business can safely cater for you, don’t take the risk! Walk away.Helpful tips for eating out
- Call the restaurant in advance to ask whether they will help you choose a suitable meal.
- If your allergic child is small, bring a snack from home for them to start eating while you negotiate their meal. This will give you time to be extra careful and wait for extra information.
- Be clear in explaining about the risks and how serious the problem is. Question staff very directly. It may be necessary to speak to a manager.
- If something looks suspicious, or if the information you have been given seems inadequate, don’t be embarrassed to mention it and find out more.
- Don’t be afraid to walk out if you are doubtful about the allergy controls in place.
- People who are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts often choose to avoid Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants altogether.
- Be cautious of any dishes with sauces or dressings unless you’re certain of what they contain. Sauces may contain hidden allergens such as wheat flour. Curries may be thickened with peanut flour or ground almonds. Bread rolls can often contain nuts or seeds.
- Be aware that recipes for a particular dish can vary from one restaurant to another and even in the same restaurant. A different chef may add or leave out particular ingredients. Always check.
Helping school staff to care for your allergic child deserves a section of its own. Click here to find out more.