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Food Safety Culture: Prevention is Better than Cure for Allergens
- Oct 1, 2020
- Latest Journal
By Dr Peter Wareing, Director, P Wareing Food Safety Ltd
In the Spring 2017 issue of The Expert Witness, I wrote about the need for independent, scientific expertise in food safety disputes. In this article, I examine the increasing number of food allergy cases that have resulted in serious injury or death, in some cases. I will outline the role of Food Safety Culture as a mechanism to reduce the risk of food poisoning or food allergy cases occurring, and what can happen if Food Safety Culture is poor or non-existent. This article highlights three cases as examples of good, poor, and non-existent food safety culture, as examples of what to look for in organisational culture.
Food Safety Culture has been described in various ways; the following is a good summary:
“The aggregation of the prevailing relatively constant, learned, shared attitudes, values and beliefs contributing to the hygiene behaviours used within a particular food handling environment” (Griffith, 2014).
Food Safety Culture is grounded in behavioural science, it is learned, developed, and exhibited by employees, from director level to the shop floor. If it is written down, but not followed by staff, then new employees will learn that is does not matter. It is a case of “Do as I say, and do as I do”, rather than “Don’t do what I do, but do as I say”. Companies can have a positive Food Safety Culture, or a negative one. The Food Standards Agency describes companies as being “Calculated Non-Compliers through to Leaders”.
There are three tiers to Food Safety Culture
• Level 1 – outer, most visible – noted during audits/inspections
• Level 2 – middle - organisational values that guide employee behaviour
• Level 3 – core values, taken for granted
It is at Level 3 that we find the true state of organisational Food Safety Culture.
A recent survey of the implementation of food safety behaviours gave the following responses:
• I carry out all FS behaviours all the time 37%
• Sometimes I do not carry out all FS behaviours all the time 59%
• Often I do not carry out all FS behaviours all the time 4%
Fourteen allergens are required to be declared by law in EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC)1169/2011 and 78/2014, in the ingredient list on the label. Regulation (EU) No. 78/2014 states that “When a product is not required to provide an ingredients list such as a bottle of wine, any allergenic ingredients within this product must be declared using a ‘contains’ statement followed by the name of the allergenic substance as listed in Annex II….”
Some of the recent cases involving people injured by food containing undeclared allergens have hinged around the flexibility of allergen declarations in 1169/2011 for caterers, foods prepacked for direct sale and non-prepacked (loose) foods, in comparison to prepacked foods. Although businesses at all stages of the food chain are required to provide allergen information, the placing of that information for the first three categories has been flexible, up to now. It is, however, an offence to provide inaccurate or incomplete information about allergenic ingredients, refuse to provide allergen information on foods served or give wrong information on a menu or through verbal communication. The Sentencing Council Guidelines 2016 gave new advice on penalties for food safety breaches, for organisations and individuals. For organisations, penalties are based on a combination of turnover, culpability and the degree of harm caused. For individuals, penalties are based on previous convictions, poor food safety/hygiene records, the degree of intent for financial gain.
Case 1 Natasha Ednan-Laperouse – Pret a Manger
In this case, Natasha bought an artichoke, olive, and tapenade baguette at Heathrow in July 2016, prior to a flight with her father to Italy. Natasha was allergic to sesame seeds; there was no mention of sesame on the label, but sesame seeds were within the baguette. The product was prepared and packed in store, counted as non-prepacked food under 1169/2011, and therefore on pack allergen labelling was not required under the UK interpretation of EU law. An allergen guide was displayed within the shop. She became unwell on the flight and died at Nice hospital despite two EpiPens and CPR being administered on the flight.
Whilst following the law at the time, Pret, as a large takeaway food operator, had made operational decisions that potentially compromised public food safety to a large number of people, given their turnover. A public campaign by Natasha’s parents has led to ‘Natasha’s Law’ being published in the UK, as a result of this tragedy. This requires full ingredient labelling on packaged foods prepared onsite. The legislation will come into force by October 2021. In the meantime, Pret a Manger launched a new Allergy Plan in May 2019, changing its labelling process over a 6 month period, rolling out full ingredient labels on all freshly made products, with allergens highlighted in bold, by the end of September 2019 in all 391 shops. They also removed some allergens from a range of products. This is an example of a company with a generally good Food Safety Culture taking on board the potentially harmful effects of previous decision and moving to a new safer position.
Case 2 Paul Wilson – Indian Garden Takeaway
Paul Wilson requested a nut-free chicken tikka masala takeaway meal from the Indian Garden restaurant, Easingwold as a takeaway meal, in January 2014. Paul suffered from peanut allergy and was careful to request no nuts in the meal. After eating the meal, he died from anaphylactic shock at home. The restaurant owner, Mr Zaman, substituted cheaper peanut powder for almond powder in recipe. There were no warnings to customers that peanut powder used, and ‘no nuts’ written on the takeaway lid. Another non-fatal allergy case occurred in a few weeks prior to Mr Wilson’s death. Investigations by the Local Authority showed that staff training was poor or non-existent. The prosecution opined that Mr Zaman put profit before safety and stated that he had received numerous warnings that he was putting customer’s lives at risk. He was found guilty of six food safety offences and gross negligence and sentenced to 6 years in jail. It could be argued that the Food Safety Culture of this business was non-existent.
Case Study 3 - Local Authority Investigations
In many case, a Local Authority will investigate a food business suspected of poor allergen controls after a previous visit, by anonymously purchasing a meal requested to be nut free, or prawn free, for example, and then testing the meal for presence of the suspect allergens. I was involved with a case like this, where the owner pleaded guilty to selling a meal containing a particular allergen, which was not declared on the menu. My role was to identify potential sources for the allergen; was it deliberately added or a cross-contaminant, if the latter, what were the potential sources of the cross-contaminant, and how could the restaurant prevent this from happening in future. Their acceptance of this guidance was used to reduce the sentence. It could be argued in this case that the company had a poor food safety culture because they were unaware of the consequences of their actions, but their willingness to accept help indicated that they were prepared to improve.
There are clear procedures laid down in food safety legislation on the methods to be employed to ensure that a food business produces safe food. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) is a risk based hazard analysis system which aims to:
1. Identify Hazards, their likelihood and severity to the consumer
2. Identify their Critical Control Points (CCPs)
3.The Critical Limits of the CCPs
4. The Monitoring mechanism
5. What Corrective Actions may be required if Critical Limits are exceeded
6. The Verification procedures required to show the system has been implemented correctly, that practices are consistent with the HACCP Plan, and that the HACCP System controls significant hazards.
7. The Documents and Records necessary as evidence to show that all activities have been performed according to approved procedures, and to provide instructions to operators on the correct procedures.
For allergens, as with all hazards, control procedures start at purchasing from an approved supplier, to a designated specification. Goods in and rejection protocols are required, ingredients must be correctly segregated according to allergen risk. A
Key factors for allergen control are the measures to control cross contamination between ingredients, packaging, machinery, personnel, the factory structure. Much of this is by segregation in space, equipment, utensils or time, correct cleaning protocols, visitor controls, the correct use, disposal, and cleaning of personal protective equipment are also important factors. Equipment much be designed for efficient cleaning, and ideally, cleaning efficiency monitored, either by testing for specific allergens, or the absence of protein residues. Many of the controls are procedural: the use of colour coded utensils, clothing, cleaning equipment, which quickly identifies if the person, utensil, or equipment is in the wrong place, or being used incorrectly.
After food production, the removal and disposal of waste and spills, to reduce pest food sources, ensuring food bins and receptacles are sealed, cleaning and site management to remove harbourage areas for pests, are of vital importance.
For restaurants and food takeaways, it is vital that customer facing staff are familiar with the allergens present in the menu choices and are able to effectively communicate with customers if asked. Clear signage regarding the allergens present in the foods, on their website, in a catalogue, menu, charts on display, in menu cards, leaflets, or orally over the phone. It is a good idea for staff to be proactive towards customers with respect to allergens. When food is delivered, any food containing or not containing certain allergens, as per the order, should be labelled, in the form of stickers, or orally as the food is delivered.
Serious allergen issues are increasing, in the majority of cases from catering and retail service. In food manufacturing, there may be issues, but these are usually detected at the production or post packaging stage but recalls due the allergens are rising. In the majority of cases, a lack of, or poor FSC is the root cause of the problem. Allergen controls are based on basic food safety measures, for example HACCP. It is of critical importance to conduct regular reviews of ingredients, menus, and processes, and to change any aspect if the review indicates that there is a risk of the consumer becoming ill due to contamination with an allergen.
Griffith, C. 2014 Developing and Maintaining a Positive Food Safety Culture, Highfield.co.uk.limited
Dr Peter Wareing, Director, P Wareing Food Safety Ltd.
Dr Peter Wareing has served as expert witness in a number of civil and criminal trials. Peter’s specialist areas are food safety systems, including HACCP, microbiology and mycology. In his role as Director and Consultant, Peter undertakes troubleshooting audits and investigations for clients, provides guidance on traceability systems and delivers food safety related training. Peter obtained his BSc in Agricultural Science from the University of Leeds and a PhD in Plant Pathology from the University of Hull. Peter is a Fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology, a Registered Food Safety Manager and a Professional Food Mentor
Company profile – P Wareing Food Safety Ltd
P Wareing Food Safety Ltd provides expertise and support to a range of clients in the food and drinks industry, ranging from startups, SME’s, through to retailers, larger food manufacturers and local government, both in the UK, Europe and internationally. P Wareing Food Safety Ltd can work in association with a number of food safety and food technology professional where required, to provide solutions to complex problems.