Government and Industry Tackle Food Allergy and Intolerance
WITH THE NUMBER OF AUSTRALIANS diagnosed with food allergies and intolerances continuing to increase, the foodservice market is under growing pressure to provide food that’s safe for these customers to eat.
Both food intolerances (the most common of which involve gluten or lactose) and allergies (ie a reaction involving the body’s immune system) can cause severe reactions and in the case of an anaphylactic response to an allergy can be life-threatening.
No wonder then that a key focus of the National Allergy Strategy is its foodservice project to identify how the delivery of appropriate food for people with food allergies can be improved.
National Allergy Strategy Coordinator Sandra Vale says the first phase of the project was to develop an online training course suitable for all foodservice workers – providing all the relevant information everyone needs to know. “We wanted to keep it relatively short, so it would be quick and easy to complete but would give everyone a baseline understanding of what is required to prepare food safely for people with food allergies.”
With this completed, the next phase of the project is underway. “We’re now looking at developing educational resources for chefs and cooks,” Sandra says. “We want to give them a thorough understanding of all the things they need to consider when selecting ingredients and preparing food, as well as the communication process that needs to happen between those preparing the food and those delivering it to the customer. In that way, we avoid the common situation where the right meal is prepared but goes to the wrong customer.
“We’re also looking at what should be the minimum standard in food allergen management training. There’s a lot of variability in accredited training courses for the hospitality sector, and rather than creating a new accredited course, we want to work with stakeholders to improve the existing courses and ensure they provide all the information people working in foodservice need.”
To this end, a roundtable discussion was held last year in Sydney where foodservice market stakeholders had the opportunity to contribute. “What we’re doing now is an outcome of those discussions – we’re really keen to engage with chefs themselves, and will be conducting a focus group session so chefs can have input directly into the training course we’re developing.”
While acknowledging that awareness about food allergies has increased, Sandra adds “When we’re talking about foodservice, it’s not just restaurants and cafes – it’s anywhere food is prepared and served, which can be health and aged care, mining sites, correctional facilities – we’re not just targeting the restaurants and cafes. I think foodservice is a challenging area because there is a high turnover of staff, so the requirement for training is continuous and ongoing.
“What we try to do is encourage foodservice establishments, whether commercial or institutional, to have a policy in place so that as they bring in new staff, there is a mechanism for training them as well as learning from mistakes so they won’t happen again.
“Inevitably, mistakes do happen and consumers do need to be prepared for that and take responsibility for declaring their food allergies clearly, and making sure they always have their emergency medication with them.” - Sandra Vale
“I sometimes think we’re so focused on cross-contamination risk, that we forget to check the right ingredients are being used. In many cases the reason the customer has had an allergic reaction when eating out is because they’ve been given the very food they’re allergic to. For example, sometimes people overlook garnishes and what they might contain. Where things sometimes go wrong is when the chef is not the one putting the garnish on a dish, and that highlights why staff communication is so vital – everyone needs to know when a dish is being prepared for someone with a food allergy, and everyone needs to know what that allergy is. So having practices in place where you are checking those things and ensuring good communication between the staff and between them and the customer is very important.
“We understand that every chef wants their food to look and taste appetising and they certainly don’t want to make the customer sick. However, from the perspective of the customer with food allergy, they want a safe meal and often simple meals can be more reassuring. A more simple meal that they are confident to eat - and won’t have an allergic reaction to - will make eating out more enjoyable.”
Sandra also makes the point that it’s imperative to keep abreast of changing ingredients from your suppliers. “You need to know, for example, that if the product you buy changes or a different product than the one you ordered is supplied, and that new or replacement products don’t contain a food allergen. You also need to ensure that temps called in when staff are ill don’t change the regular recipes. Having standardised recipes that are always followed is another way of ensuring effective food allergen management.”
Those readers interested in getting involved with the National Allergy Strategy foodservice project can visit the www.nationalallergystrategy.org.au website, register their interest to receive a newsletter and also email Sandra at email@example.com. “We aim to be as inclusive as possible so we really do welcome foodservice professionals getting in touch and working with us to develop these resources,” Sandra affirms. “That way we can ensure they are as useful as they can be to the end-user.”
Resources are also being developed by leading foodservice manufacturers – like Nestlé Professional’s recently released Practical Guide to Gluten and other Allergens in Healthcare, which is of particular relevance to private hospitals and aged care
facilities. Nestlé Professional Nutritionist Karen Kingham explains this latest resource follows on from its 2015 Practical Guide to Gluten Free developed in collaboration with Coeliac Australia. “That was very much a commercially focused resource, which had great response from industry and is still being used,” Karen says. “But there was a real gap in what was available for healthcare, so we raised the concept with Coeliac Australia. Going to hospital is not necessarily going to be a great experience if you need a gluten free diet.”
In the process of developing the concept further with the Institute of Hospitality in Healthcare (IHHC), it was decided to broaden the focus to include all food allergens.
“This new guide follows the same format as the previous one,” Karen explains. “It takes a very complex topic and presents it in plain English, in bite-sized chunks that people can understand and interpret. It also includes some pictorial guides that illustrate the key points, so people with lower literacy levels or English as a second language can understand.
“We consulted quite widely in creating this resource and when we launched it at the IHHC Conference last October, the feedback we got was that people felt it was addressing a lot of the relevant issues around things like best practice, allergen notification and management, ingredient sourcing and storage, and cross contamination.”
Karen acknowledges there’s still a long way to go for foodservice providers in effectively managing food allergens. “Having said that, manufacturers like Nestlé Professional and organisations like Coeliac Australia and the National Allergy Strategy are great champions and it’s wonderful to see the increasing focus on foodservice, which in the past has lacked the support it needed.”
Nestlé Professional has been a staunch sponsor of Coeliac Australia’s gluten free online training module, demand for which continues to be strong among foodservice operators. “We recently had the head chef of Queensland Parliament putting his entire staff through the training – he said gluten free is the number one dietary request they are asked for and we want to do it properly,” reports Coeliac Australia Special Projects Officer Cathy Di Bella. “We’ve had several places that have trained their staff and found it’s really made a difference.”
Coeliac Australia has also introduced an accreditation system to ensure foodservice establishments are delivering genuinely gluten free meals. This includes an initial online assessment to enable the business to prepare for an onsite audit conducted by SGS, known worldwide for its auditing and quality control. They look at three main aspects: sourcing of raw materials, which must all be gluten free; handling and preparation to ensure segregation from any gluten containing ingredients at all stages of storage, delivery and preparation; and delivery of the end product to the customer. As part of the process, the establishment is provided with comprehensive gluten free standards and relevant documentation.
There are currently 16 business undertaking the process – those that have already been accredited are listed at coeliac.org.au/accreditedrestaurants, embracing a wide variety of establishments. “Every single business that has been through this process says they’ve learnt something from it,” Cathy points out. “Most of them are very confident going in, they usually sign up thinking they are already compliant, but we’ve picked up some issue in each and every site, which they are so grateful for because they are then able to remedy it. We had one site using an ingredient from an overseas supplier which had been labelled 100 per cent gluten free, but when it was tested we found it actually contained gluten.
“Since the program has been running we’ve had a 100 per cent renewal rate on the accreditation licenses, so clearly it’s good for business. At the moment we get around four inquiries a week from businesses wanting to know how they can participate.”
Cathy emphasises that obtaining gluten free food remains a major issue for people dining out. “Over the last three years we collaborated with a research institute to go out and test gluten free meals from foodservice businesses in Melbourne, and found that much of this food contained gluten, sometimes at quite high levels. Sometimes this is due to cross-contamination, but in other cases it was clearly due to using ingredients containing gluten.
“Shared fryers and toasters are a major issue – there seems to be a common myth that gluten can be destroyed in high temperatures, but it can’t. Education and training is the key, and it’s important for foodservice operators to understand that if you’re making a gluten free claim it’s a health claim under the Health Standards Code. So you need to take it seriously.”