How caterers can join the fight against food fraud

By Dr Mike Bromley, SYNLAB Laboratories

Around one – five percent of the world’s population have a clinically proven food allergy, and it’s thought that around two million people are affected in the UK alone.

While a relatively small percentage of the population, those who suffer with food allergies can see their lives severely affected every day – whether through exposure to allergens or indirectly through the fear of being exposed.

With recent reports suggesting that five to 10 people each year die in the UK alone* because of food allergen exposure, it’s clear to see that these fears are not unwarranted.

Consumers’ awareness of ‘food fraud’ has never been greater thanks to global media reporting and social networking. The dramatic impact of the infamous horsemeat scandal has done much to focus the minds of caterers – as well as the suppliers, manufacturers and retailers they rely on.

With the food on our shelves and plates coming from an ever-increasing number of sources worldwide, the number of potential contaminants is vast, and yet our capability to detect these has become increasingly limited by the existing technologies on offer. When it comes to catering in particular, these prominent risk areas can include manufacturer contamination, staff-introduced contaminants, cross-contamination and even gaps in staff training or knowledge. These risks are further heightened when it comes to the hospitality and food service industry, due to frequent changes in food type being prepared, minimal space for storage and the pressures of immediate service to consumers.

In general, these risks can be reduced with internal risk analysis, increased supplier checks, regular auditing and staff training. However, it’s essential for caterers to continually measure effectiveness of the procedures they have in place – and improve them where necessary. After all, even the most experienced and diligent of caterers can fall foul of complacency laws, especially when it comes to the  added pressure of being consistently customer-facing and on the ‘front line’ of the food industry’s supply chain. As such, it’s crucial for caterers to be extremely vigilant and ensure they have best-practice procedures in place.

Unless catering providers employ dedicated, and costly, on-site technical staff teams to ensure each allergen-detection procedure is followed rigorously, it’s inevitable that some things may be missed or overlooked.

With that in mind, it’s certainly worth considering calling on outside resource and support in order to ensure compliancy and to safeguard the business as a whole. The sheer level of scientific knowledge and understanding of current legislation required to ensure companies remain compliant means that even the largest of firms will probably require some level of external support when it comes to testing for allergens and monitoring internal compliance procedures.

The good news for smaller businesses with tighter budget restrictions, is that recent advances in technology have resulted in affordable and accessible allergen testing methods entering the market.

At SYNLAB, we are experts in food authenticity testing and have most recently developed an allergen testing kit specifically designed to be used on site for the catering and hospitality industries. The technology provides a really simple method that allows caterers to supple reliable allergen information to their customers. The testing procedure provides reliable results in as little as 15 minutes.

The emergence of new technologies like this means that companies of all sizes should be able to minimise the risks that they may not have thought of previously, ensuring they are demonstrating awareness and care around allergen issues such as cross-contamination.

Dr Mike Bromley was the founder of Genon Laboratories, now part of SYNLAB,  and he is a lecturer in Medical Mycology at the University of Manchester.. 

* http://allergytraining.food.gov.uk/english/food-allergy-facts.aspx