As safe as can be

With food supplies changing on a daily basis due to the current situation, it is vital that strict allergen policies are in place and that all substitute foods are reviewed

With food supplies changing on a daily basis due to the current situation, it is vital that strict allergen policies are in place and that all substitute foods are reviewed. Gemma Bradish reports

It is statistically proven that food allergies among children are on the rise, especially in the UK and other Western countries. According to Dr Alexandra Santos of King’s College London, a food allergy now affects 7% of children in the UK. This is being felt by school caterers across the country. Chartwells, for example, has seen the number of special diets increase approximately five-fold in the last five years.

There are many speculations as to why this increase is happening, with theories including pollution, diet and less exposure to microbes, which can impact how the immune system reacts; scientists, however, are yet to identify the exact cause.

Unlike an intolerance, which triggers symptoms such as bloating and stomach pain, an allergy can be life-threatening. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly treats proteins found in food as a threat. Symptoms can include difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath and swelling of the face, mouth, throat or other areas of the body. Given the rise of food allergies and their potential severity, school caterers must be increasingly careful when it comes to preparing and serving food, taking every precaution possible to avoid cross-contamination.

Safety first
The first step towards keeping pupils safe is to use trusted suppliers that have a specific range for the education sector and can guarantee that their products are allergen-free. For every food item that is delivered, it’s incredibly important that you check the list of ingredients every time, as you cannot assume that they haven’t changed since your last order.

All schools should have an allergen matrix (a copy can be downloaded from the website) and this should always be updated if necessary following product checks. What’s more, it’s equally important that allergen-free ingredients are kept in their own separate area and placed in clearly marked containers with secure lids to prevent cross-contamination.

Great care must also be taken when it comes to preparing ingredients for consumption. To avoid cross-contamination at this stage, it’s paramount that separate work surfaces, chopping boards and utensils are used to prepare allergen-free ingredients, and that they are all cleaned thoroughly after each use.

“Segregation of allergen and allergen-free meals applies to the cooking process as well,” says Mike Hardman, marketing manager at Alliance Online. “Even when using the same oil to cook allergen-free foods, cross-contamination is possible if that same oil was used to cook your regular batches. If you find that separation of these foods isn’t possible, whether it’s due to timing issues or space available, you need to inform via the menus that allergen-free versions of certain meals are not available.”

Of course, staff must know about the above procedures in order to implement them, and therefore it’s crucial that everyone receives in-depth training.

“Staff must be able to provide full details on procedures and policies when asked about allergen information, whether it be by teachers, parents or the students themselves,” states Hardman. “This is in conjunction with being able to confidently prepare and serve allergen-free meals to the right students, along with understanding the risks associated with failing to do so.”

When it comes to serving food, school caterers must always address allergens in writing to enable students to make informed choices. Malcolm Muir, director of consultancy firm Venners, says that caterers can convey full allergen information on a menu, chalkboard or in an information pack, or simply display a written notice explaining how pupils can obtain the information – for example, by speaking to a member of staff. He also advises that allergen-free meals are kept separate from all other available options.

“Serve dishes to pupils who have a food allergen requirement first and separately from the rest of the order,” he urges. “Don’t forget ingredients that may be included in drink orders. Drinks may seem more straightforward, but caterers must be mindful and ensure every element is taken into consideration.”

Nothing to hide
If a student needs to ask about any food item to assess whether it’s safe to eat, it’s extremely important that they do not feel shy about doing so. Pupils who suffer from allergies should not be made to feel different to their peers, as this can leave them reluctant to highlight their condition. To encourage them to speak up, teachers must develop a culture of acceptance and understanding, and this can be done by raising allergy awareness throughout the whole school.

There are many resources available online that can be used to educate students; for example, the website has numerous information packs that can be downloaded. Also, BBC Bitesize has a powerful animation tool entitled ‘Living with anaphylactic allergies – Izzy and Ben’s story’, which is aimed at primary school children. Not only does it provide valuable information on allergies and anaphylaxis, but it reminds youngsters to understand and respect that everyone is different.

For secondary school students, Lancashire County Council recommends that teachers share ‘A Day in the Life of Chloe’, a video available on YouTube that highlights what it’s like to live with the constant threat of having an anaphylactic reaction.

In terms of identifying students who have a food allergy, it is vital that schools have a system in place that enables catering staff to recognise them. One idea is to have their photographs on display in the kitchen and serving areas, which works well if staff have the time to refer to them. In schools where serving areas are rather frantic, it may be a better idea to give pupils a wristband or sticker to wear, allowing for instant identification. The thought of having to wear such an obvious marker, however, may be embarrassing for some students, which is why it is important to promote allergy awareness among all year groups.

As food allergies continue to rise, it is likely that schools will see a steady increase in the number of pupils affected. To prevent the risk of cross-contamination, which can happen all too easily, precautions must be taken from the moment food arrives on the premises to the moment it is served. The truth of the matter is that food allergies can be fatal, and so caterers cannot be complacent.

Useful websites
As stated on the website for the Anaphylaxis Campaign charity, every school is likely to have at least one pupil who is severely allergic to a type of food, and many schools will have more. The charity has a campaign called Making Schools Safer, which aims to equip schools with the knowledge needed to support youngsters that have a severe allergy.

Resources available include online AllergyWise training courses, which have been designed to provide key information on anaphylaxis, the risks of severe allergies and how to manage them.

Meanwhile, the website has a free self-audit tool that allows secondary schools to assess how prepared they are to safely manage pupils with allergies. After completing a series of multiple choice questions, respondents will be able to review their answers along with relevant information about best practice. Available to download, the website also has a seven-step user-friendly toolkit to help secondary schools develop a whole school allergy awareness policy.

Allergen awareness
There are 14 major allergens that must be mentioned when used as ingredients in a food item or meal. As well as listing these allergens below, we have mentioned food items that may contain them:

Celery – stock cubes, salads, soups, curry powder
Cereals containing gluten – baking powders, batters, breadcrumbs
Crustaceans – shrimp paste, fish sauce, fish stock
Eggs – cakes, pasta, mayonnaise
Fish – oyster sauce, Worcestershire sauce, stock cubes
Lupin – bread, pastries, pizza bases, pasta
Milk – ice cream, chocolate, batters
Molluscs – oyster sauce, seafood dishes
Mustard – curry powder, spice mixes, soups
Nuts – marzipan, pesto, biscuits
Peanuts – satay sauce, peanut butter, groundnut oil
Sesame seeds – stir fries, prawn toast, burger buns
Soya – milk substitutes, ice cream, margarines and spreads
Sulphur dioxide (sometimes known as sulphites) – sausages, burgers, sultanas, raisins

It must be remembered that children can also be allergic to other ingredients not listed above, such as tomatoes, strawberries and mushrooms. However, no matter what the ingredient, the same care must always be taken to avoid cross-contamination.