Food allergies are a serious issue that is becoming more common throughout Canada. More than 3 million Canadians self-report having a food allergy and it is estimated that 3–4% of adults and 5–6% of children in Canada have a food allergy.
Any type of food can contain an allergen; however, there are certain foods that people are more likely to be allergic to. The 12 top allergens in Canada are: wheat, gluten, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, eggs, milk, fish, soy, sesame seeds, sulphites and mustard. While many children outgrow their food allergies, certain allergies such as those to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish are more likely to last throughout someone’s life.
Reactions due to food allergies can range from mild discomforts such as hives or rashes, to serious and life-threatening reactions such as anaphylaxis. This is why food allergies must be taken extremely seriously.
Food businesses in Canada are accountable for preparing food that is safe for allergy-suffering customers. This includes knowing the presence of allergens in foods being sold. Ignorance is not an excuse, nor a defence. Food businesses must ensure that procedures and training are put in place, and staff understand their obligations when it comes to handling allergen-related requests.
In order for a business and its staff to be prepared to handle and prevent allergy risks, effective allergen management is key. Businesses should consider the following when conducting allergen management:
Know your supplier’s allergen protocols
It is essential that food businesses know exactly what is in the ingredients and other food items that are purchased from suppliers. Food businesses should understand how suppliers determine allergen content for the items that they sell. Food businesses can require that suppliers provide information about how they determine a food's allergen content and the measures they take before making any declaration. Requests for audits or other compliance certifications can also be made by food businesses.
Additionally, food businesses must keep communication open with their chosen suppliers; this allows for food businesses to be kept up-to-date on ingredient or formula changes as well as any changes in how the supplier determines allergen status.
Know how to handle and store allergenic foods
It is essential that food businesses store food items properly. All food items need to be handled and stored in a way that minimizes the chance of cross-contamination. Items that contain allergens should be stored away from other food items, and clearly marked in containers (using colour-coded containers is a helpful option). If food items containing allergens cannot be separated from other food items, store them below other food items in order to reduce the risk of them spilling onto other items and causing cross-contamination.
Know ingredients and recipes
It's extremely important to ensure that all staff know the products and ingredients of products that the food business makes and sells. Product labels should always be checked as ingredients can sometimes change. Food staff should check for allergens and be mindful of allergens listed by alternative names or in foods that might not be associated with a particular ingredient. Food businesses must only use labelled ingredients and products, and take precaution when adding any ingredients to products being prepared and served or sold.
Know how to prepare allergen-free meals
A dedicated space and cooking utensils for preparing allergen-free meals is absolutely essential. This allows food businesses to easily and safely prepare a meal free from a particular allergen, should it be requested by a customer.
These dedicated areas and cooking utensils must be cleaned and sanitized after every use. This is because different customers will have different allergies. For example, a customer may request a meal that is prepared with soy milk instead of cow’s milk due to an allergy. Later, a different customer could request a soy-free meal. If the dedicated utensils and prep area have not been properly cleaned and sanitized after the milk-free meal from earlier, the second customer could have an allergic reaction due to the soy-milk that was used in the other meal.
There is a common misconception that a person must consume a large quantity of an allergen in order to have an allergic reaction. Unfortunately, this is not true. Minimal amounts of an allergen are enough to cause a serious allergic reaction in some people. With this knowledge, it is essential that food businesses clean and sanitize dedicated areas and equipment after each use.
Know if recipes change
If a supplier has changed their formula or recipe for a particular food item, food businesses must determine if there are any allergens introduced by the change. Changes to recipes mean that menus must be updated to include any new ingredients, even if the new ingredients aren’t considered one of the top 12 food allergens. This is because any food has the potential to cause an allergic reaction in a customer.
Any changes to ingredients and menu items must also be communicated to all staff members. Cooks in the kitchen must understand how the recipe has changed and staff at the front of house must also be made aware of changes to menu items. Servers need to know what each menu item contains so that they can advise customers should they declare an allergy when ordering. Other front-of-house staff, such as hostesses, should know which menu items contain allergens as well. This way, if they receive a phone call asking about a particular meal on the menu, the staff member can answer those questions accurately.
Know if staff are trained
In Canada, food safety training is a legal requirement in most provinces and territories. The nationally-recognized CIFS Food Handler Certification Course provides food workers with everything they need to know about food safety. Along with understanding food safety, CIFS offers training specific to understanding food allergies and how to mitigate allergen risks in a food business. View our Food Allergen Training course page for more information.
While having trained and knowledgeable staff is vital for allergen management in a food business, constant communication is also key. Food business owners and managers must continue to communicate about allergens with staff members on a frequent basis so that food allergy protocols do not slip.
Want more information on allergen management? Download the CIFS Guide to Allergen Management for Food Businesses.