Trading Standards Institute Advice

Food allergy and intolerance

This leaflet is for all food businesses, including those involved in catering, food production, food preparation, retail premises, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and fast-food shops. Individuals might also find it useful.

What does this mean?
Not everyone is able to eat everything. Apart from what we like and don't like to eat, our food choices may depend on how well our body can process certain foods.

Some people react badly to certain foods, and what happens when they eat those foods can be very serious. You are responsible for making sure you manage the risk of harm to all your customers. Food intolerances must be managed carefully and thoroughly. Food intolerances and the presence of allergens should be considered as a form of contamination in your food safety management system.

Reactions, symptoms and conditions
Bad reactions to food are divided into two groups: allergy and intolerance.

An allergic reaction is a particular kind of food intolerance which triggers the body's immune system. Foods which trigger this are known as allergens. A common type of allergic reaction is anaphylactic shock. Anaphylactic shock symptoms may be mild, but can be life-threatening and include swelling of the throat, neck and mouth, which causes breathing difficulties, collapse and unconsciousness.

Intolerances include a range of reactions that may include an upset digestive tract or symptoms of eczema. There are lots of different reactions to food allergies and intolerances. They include skin rash or flushing, diarrhoea, being sick, asthma and wheezing, a runny nose, migraines and headaches, and irritability and depression.

Coeliac disease is a common digestive condition where a person is intolerant to gluten in wheat and other foods. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can also be caused by a bad reaction to food.

For some people, tiny amounts of a certain food are enough to cause a bad reaction. This means that the cause of a bad reaction can be hidden in food products, such as a minor ingredient in a recipe, or could even be a tiny amount left on a container, a food-preparation surface, a piece of equipment, a utensil, cutlery or crockery.

How do I control and stop this happening?
You need to include contamination from allergens in your food safety management system. The Safer Food Better Business (SFBB) package has a section on food allergens. The SFBB package is a very simple food-safety management system designed as an easy-to-use option for smaller businesses. You can still get a copy of the SFBB package from the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Or contact your local authority environmental health service for advice.

You need to know about the kinds of food that may be a problem. The most common problem foods are:

  • nuts, especially peanuts, but also walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts and hazelnuts
  • dairy foods, as some people are lactose-intolerant (lactose is the natural sugar found in milk) and must avoid milk, dairy products and any food containing dairy products such as cream, yoghurt, cheese and butter
  • wheat and wheat products that contain gluten (which can cause coeliac disease)
  • eggs and egg products
  • fish and shellfish (especially prawns and mussels)
  • soya and products that contain soya
  • celery and celery flavourings
  • seeds such as sesame seeds, mustard seeds and poppy seeds
  • additives such as some preservatives and colourings
  • some fruits including kiwi, strawberries and citrus fruits

This is not a full list. You can find more information on the Food Standards Agency website.

You need to know about ingredients you use. The labelling laws in the UK are strict and are designed to identify every ingredient in a food product. You must understand and know what is in the products you buy and use. For food items you prepare on-site, you should keep a record of all the ingredients and keep to a standard recipe. You must also keep all your information up to date and make sure it is easily available to all your staff.

You must train your staff. It is very important that you make sure your staff are trained to deal with any questions from your customers. Your staff need to fully understand the food they produce or serve, and have a system in place for when they need to find extra information about what is in the food. Your customers need clear information about whether a food product is suitable for them. Your staff must NEVER guess the ingredients in a dish or suggest to the customer that 'it should be OK'.

You need to manage where and how you prepare food and consider the risk of the food coming into contact with allergens. You could have specific areas (for example, a 'nut-free area') where you can prevent food being contaminated by separating different foods and having strict and thorough ways of cleaning. However, this may be difficult for you to achieve so you may prefer to clearly label products and menus with 'may contain a trace of…' or 'prepared in an environment where…'. Staff must never guess about this.

More information
You will find further guidance in our other leaflets on this website. Information can also be found on the Food Standards Agency website.

Alternatively, contact your local environmental health service for advice.

Please note
This leaflet is not an authoritative interpretation of the law and is intended only for guidance.

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