• Amy Alt

Allergens : How one radio program changed our approach

I remember where I was when I heard the story, I had just swung into the Waitrose car park and was half listening to Women's Hour on Radio 4. Something suddenly made me tune into the couple who were talking and as I pulled into a space and cut the engine I kept the radio on. The couple were Tanya and Nadim and they were explaining the heartbreaking last minutes of their 15-year-old daughter's life as she died of anaphylactic shock after eating a contaminated Pret baguette. As I listened to their voices it was clear that although two years had passed they were re-living that terrible pain of losing a child every second of every day.

This was a real wake-up call. I was familiar with serious allergies having grown up with a few friends who suffered. I was aware of the risks and always knew how to use an epipen should I need to. Of course we had carefully catered for many customers with allergies already. However, in the position of professionally feeding hundreds of people each week their story made it clear that it's much more complicated than just dealing with allergies as they are announced.

What if one of our customers forgets to tell us about an allergy when they order?

What if they have misunderstood the ingredients of each dish judging by the menu?

Were we really doing everything possible to reduce the risk of harming our customers to as close to zero as possible?

As I thought back over my knowledge of the legal labelling requirements for catered food I realised that there was nothing in place to mandate the labelling of allergens. Although legally I was not obliged, morally it was clearly my responsibility to upgrade our approach to allergens.

What we did

Allergen labels - There are 14 allergens main allergens which are listed on these stickers. It was as simple as now adding these to the lids of every platter we send out, clearly marked depending on the dish.

Err on the side of caution - For example: hundreds of sesame seeded bagels and rolls pass through the kitchen each week. The seeds are tiny and they get EVERYWHERE. Therefore every single thing which comes out the kitchen is labelled as containing sesame, it's simply not worth the risk to bank on the fact that any tiny seeds haven't gone awry. Likewise we use a baker who has nuts in some of their products. We label everything containing their products as containing nuts.

Prompting our customers - We now implement a policy where the customer is always prompted to provide dietary requirements at the time of ordering. That means there is a specific box to fill in on our online ordering system and if an order is placed without any requirements we will always go back and verify this with the customer.

Allergens matrix - The allergens matrix listing all the allergens in any of our food is easily found on the menu page of our website. This means it can be accessed in advance of ordering or at the last minute if any lids with the allergy labels on get separated from the food.

Kitchen processes - Where allergies are communicated to us these are treated very seriously, we prepare food for those with severe allergies at the beginning of a shift when all of the kitchen and equipment is totally sanitised. We also use separate benches to prepare the food all to reduce any risk of contamination.

As the business continues to grow it is critical that we never become complacent about the potential risks associated with allergens. I will always be working from menu creation to final delivery to keep our customers safe.

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