The importance of safe allergen management in Health and Care settings

Unlike catering and hospitality settings, where it can be optional to serve those with food allergies, healthcare catering has a duty of care to provide substantial and suitable food, for all dietary requirements whilst a person is in their care. Clare Grantham, Operations Manager at The Safer Food Group, discusses the key hygiene factors to consider when managing allergens in healthcare settings.

Approximately two million individuals in the United Kingdom are living with a food allergy, whereas 600,000 individuals have been diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, according to the Food Standards Agency. With an increasing number of service users and patients presenting food allergies and intolerances, it has never been more crucial for healthcare professionals to be up to date in their knowledge of allergy awareness.

The phrases ‘food allergy’ and ‘food intolerance’ are frequently used concerning one another, despite their major differences. A food allergy is characterised by an immune system reaction to proteins found in food, which can result in serious reactions such as anaphylaxis. On the other hand, food intolerance triggers a reaction in the digestive system and can be life altering.

The occurrence of food allergies in the UK has been steadily increasing, which has become a major public health issue of growing significance. Within healthcare environments, this increase raises the likelihood of unintentional contact with substances that cause allergic reactions, which might result in life-threatening situations for patients who have recognised or undiagnosed food allergies.

There have been notable advancements in UK food allergy regulation in recent years. The implementation of Natasha’s Law plays a key role in regulating the management of allergies in healthcare settings. These standards require that allergenic substances in pre-packed foods be clearly labelled. They also require healthcare caterers to have the skills to handle, communicate, and avoid the spread of allergens. This legislation emphasises the importance of comprehensive allergen management in healthcare catering, whilst ensuring patient safety and promoting informed decision-making around food choices.

Another campaign, which is currently being backed by the Food Standards Agency, is Owen’s Law. This campaign is calling for a change in the law for non-pre-packed food retailers to state the 14 food allergens in writing at the point of sale. If this legislation comes into effect, then the FSA will provide guidance to the industry in advance, which we should have more details on later in the year. 

Identifying and managing the 14 allergens

The UK legislation identifies 14 allergens that require special attention in healthcare catering. These allergens include cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, milk, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seeds, sulphur dioxide and sulphites, lupin, and molluscs. For healthcare professionals involved in food production or distribution, an understanding of these allergens is a regulatory requirement and an essential aspect of patient care.

Each of these allergens poses unique challenges in a healthcare setting. While some, like nuts and shellfish, are easily identifiable, others such as sulphites or gluten may be present in less obvious forms or as additives in processed foods. The skill lies in not only recognising these allergens but also in effectively managing them to prevent exposure. This involves a thorough examination of product labels, understanding all aspects of food preparation, and establishing effective communication with both kitchen personnel and patients of potential allergenic hazards.

Cross-contamination and safe storage

In a healthcare environment, where the consequences of allergen exposure can be particularly severe, preventing cross-contamination is paramount. Cross-contamination occurs when allergenic substances are transferred to an allergen-free product, making it unsafe for consumption by individuals with allergies.

The key to preventing cross-contamination is clear storage and handling processes. This includes designated storage areas for allergenic ingredients, separate preparation areas, and the use of different utensils and equipment for allergen-free cooking. Regular training sessions for kitchen team members on the importance of these practices can reinforce the seriousness of allergen management and ensure that processes are consistently followed.

Healthcare caterers must ensure that even the smallest quantities of allergens do not come into contact with allergen-free meals, a task that demands a high level of attention to detail and a deep understanding of how allergens can be transferred in a kitchen environment.

Labelling and communication

Effective communication about allergens is a critical component of healthcare catering. Natasha’s Law mandates clear labelling of allergens in both pre-packed foods, which helps healthcare professionals make informed decisions about meal planning for patients with allergies.

The process of labelling and communication begins with the procurement of ingredients, where healthcare caterers must be knowledgeable in interpreting food labels and identifying the presence of allergens. This knowledge then needs to be effectively communicated to the entire catering team, as well as to patients and their families.

To ensure this, healthcare facilities should consider developing extensive communication strategies, including training for staff on how to convey allergen information accurately and sympathetically. Clear, accessible information should be available not just on food packaging, but also in menus and through digital platforms used within the healthcare facility.

Allergen training for healthcare teams

Effective allergen management in healthcare settings relies on expert training for all staff members. Given the variety of roles within a healthcare facility, training should be tailored to each role, ensuring that everyone from kitchen staff to ward personnel understands their part in allergen management.

For kitchen staff, training should focus on identifying allergens, understanding labelling, preventing cross-contamination, and safe food preparation practices. For those delivering care, including nurses and ward managers, training should emphasise the importance of communication about food allergies and the procedures to follow when an allergic reaction is identified.

Regular refresher courses are essential to keep all staff members up-to-date with the latest allergen information and management techniques. The Safer Food Groups offers both Level 2 Allergy Awareness and Level 3 Food Allergy Training for Managers and Supervisors, available to complete online and approved to EHO standards.

Following regulations is not the only objective of allergen awareness and management in healthcare settings; it is crucial for guaranteeing the safety and well-being of patients. In a sector where the consequences of mismanagement can be severe, an in-depth understanding of allergy risks is essential.
Healthcare professionals who have the knowledge and skills required to effectively manage these risks have increased confidence and efficiency in their roles. This confidence translates into a more efficient team, competent in providing consistent, dependable, and safe services to patients. For more information on The Safer Food Group’s training courses, please visit:

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