Don’t risk fines by ignoring new food rules

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Nikki Hutchins, an expert in food safety legislation at law firm Blake Morgan, on new regulations that food businesses need to make sure don’t go ignored.

We’re all familiar with the warning “may contain nuts”, designed to protect customers with potentially fatal allergies.

But if you run a deli, restaurant, café, sandwich shop, could you confidently list all the potential allergens in the dishes you serve up?

If not, you’ll need to brush up on what exactly is on the menu to make sure you comply with new European food laws that are due to come into force in December this year.

The Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIC) deals with a number of issues and is mainly designed to ensure that foods are labelled with correct information about nutrition, quantity and country of origin.

But the regulations also say any business that sells food that is not pre-packed must be able to say whether the product contains any one of 14 allergens.

They are: milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame, soybeans, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, molluscs, lupin (sometimes found as flour in baked goods) and significant levels of sulphur dioxide, used as a preservative.

After the rules come into force, staff at the premises must be able to say if a particular dish or product contains anything that is on the list if a customer asks.

There must also be a written label, notice, menu or ticket which clearly states that allergen information can be obtained by asking a member of staff.

Businesses need to make sure all their staff are ready to answer questions – and in practice that means the kitchen will need to put together details of all the ingredients in the dishes on offer and present it in a way that is easily accessible by staff. This could be in the form of information sheets for each dish or by using a spreadsheet.

Food manufacturers will be subject to the same rules so you should be able to identify the allergens in products from suppliers.

The regulations only relate to deliberately-added ingredients and do not cover possible allergen cross-contamination in the kitchen. 

It will no longer be enough for a business to say that they do not know whether or not a food contains an allergen or to say that all their foods may contain allergens. 

And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that these rules only affect the manufacturers and large chains – that way you’ll risk potential action and the threat of hefty fines.

Giving inaccurate or incomplete information about allergens in foods sold would be a breach of the regulation, and an Environmental Health or Trading Standards Officer may issue an improvement notice if they have reasonable grounds for believing that the business is failing to comply with the provision. 

The improvement notice will specify which provisions they believe are being breached, what measures need to be taken in order to put the situation right and a date by which it must be done. 

This may, for example require the business to remove products from sale until the correct information is available. It is an offence not to comply with the notice. 

Local authorities can also prosecute for failing to comply with the regulation without firstly issuing an improvement notice if they consider the breach to be serious. 

A business found guilty of any offences in relation to the FIC is liable to a fine of up to £5,000 per charge.

If incorrect information was given in relation to more than one product then this could result in multiple charges being laid against the business – enough to put many small businesses under. Be prepared!