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Allergen control

Guidance and advice on allergens for food businesses in the retail and catering industry.

Published: 10 February 2021

Last updated: 18 February 2021

Food business operators are required to provide allergen information and follow labelling rules as set out in food law.

This means that food business operators must: 

  • provide allergen information to the consumer for both prepacked and non-prepacked food and drink
  • handle and manage food allergens effectively in food preparation

14 Allergens

Food businesses need to tell customers if any food they provide contains any of the listed allergens as an ingredient.

Consumers may be allergic or have intolerance to other ingredients, but only the 14 allergens are required to be declared as allergens by food law.

The 14 allergens are: celery, cereals containing gluten (such as barley and oats), crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters), eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs (such as mussels and oysters), mustard, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million) and tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).

This also applies to additives, processing aids and any other substances which are present in the final product.

Steps to comply

You must provide allergen information in writing if you sell or provide food to your customers directly. This could be either:

When allergen information is provided as part of a conversation with a customer, this can be backed up by written information. This would ensure that it is accurate and consistent.

You can display an allergy and intolerance sign to tell customers how they can find allergy information or create your own.

There are a number of ways in which allergen information can be provided to your customers. You will need to choose the method which is best for your business and the type of food you serve.

  1. Manage allergens - ensure there are practices in place to prevent allergenic cross contamination and raise awareness in staff by training.
  2. Provide consumers with allergen information - this can be done verbally or in writing (on packaging, labels, menu, chalkboard or in an information pack).
  3. A written notice placed in a clearly visible position explaining how your customers can obtain this information.
  4. Record information about allergens - for every menu item or food product served or sold, the presence of any of the 14 allergens should be recorded. The information can be recorded on paper records or electronically but should always be accessible to the member(s) of staff responsible for giving the allergen advice and be complete, correct and up to date.

Resources

Allergen and intolerance signs

Allergen information for loose foods

Chef's recipe sheet for allergens

Dishes and their allergen content

Pre-packed foods

Prepacked products refer to any food put into packaging before being placed on sale. Food is prepacked when it:

  • is either fully or partly enclosed by the packaging
  • cannot be altered without opening or changing the packaging
  • is ready for sale

Prepacked food must have an ingredients list present on the packaging. Allergens present in the product must be emphasised each time they appear in the ingredients list.

Pre-packed foods for direct sale

Prepacked for direct sale products are foods that have been packed on the same premises from which they are being sold.

Common foods that can fall into this category include sandwiches, salads and pies made and sold from the premises in which they are made. It is expected that the customer is able to speak with the person who made or packed the product to ask about ingredients.

Currently, allergen information can be provided in the same way as for non-prepacked (loose) foods.
From October 2021, the way food businesses must provide allergen labelling information for Prepacked for Direct Sale (PPDS) will change. Foods will need to have a label with a full ingredients list with allergenic ingredients emphasised within it.

These changes will provide essential information to help people with a food allergy or intolerance make safe food choices.

Non pre-packed (loose) foods

If you provide non-prepacked (loose) foods, you must supply allergen information for every item that contains any of the 14 allergens. 

Non-prepacked (loose) foods include:

  • foods sold loose in retail outlets
  • foods which are not sold prepacked

Non-prepacked allergen information requirements can apply to loose items sold at a delicatessen counter, a bakery, a butcher’s, as well as meals served in a restaurant, and food from a takeaway.

Free-from, gluten-free and vegan claims

Making free-from claims for foods requires strict controls of ingredients, how they are handled and how they are prepared. A free-from claim is a guarantee that the food is suitable for all with an allergy or intolerance.

For example, if you are handling wheat flour in a kitchen and you cannot remove the risk of cross-contamination through segregation by time and space, you should let the customer know. You should not make any gluten-free or wheat-free claims.

Customers sometimes assume that vegan meals are free-from animal-based allergens (egg, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, milk). This is not always the case as low-level cross-contamination from these ingredients can occur during the production process. You need to be clear about this risk in the food you provide.

Avoiding allergen cross-contamination

It is important for food businesses to take steps to avoid cross-contamination in food preparation to protect customers with a food allergy.

There are a number of actions you can take to prevent cross-contamination with allergens. These include:

  • cleaning utensils before each usage, especially if they were used to prepare meals containing allergens
  • washing hands thoroughly between preparing dishes with and without certain allergens
  • storing ingredients and prepared foods separately in closed and labelled containers
  • keeping ingredients that contain allergens separate from other ingredients

Allergen cross-contamination can also happen through using the same cooking oil. To cook gluten-free chips, you can’t use the same oil which has been previously used for cooking battered fish.

If you can’t avoid cross-contamination in food preparation, you should inform customers that you can’t provide an allergen-free dish.

Enforcement and penalties

Apart from the possibility of making a customer seriously ill, you could also face the risk of financial and reputational damage to your food business if you fail to comply with allergen information requirements.

Local authorities enforce allergen information regulations. Failure to comply can result in enforcement action

If you fail to act on advice given by a food safety officer, an Improvement Notice may be issued. If you do not meet the requirements of this notice, you will be issued with a penalty.

You have 14 days to appeal an improvement notice from the date the notice was issued. In some cases, businesses may also face prosecution.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) website contains a wealth of information on food standards legislation, guidance and news.

The GOV.uk website has further information on the distance selling of products. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) website has further information on the labelling of food products.