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07 February 2019

‘Project Allergen’ reveals need for continued work with Cumbria food retailers

Recent sampling carried out by Cumbria County Council’s Trading Standards department has revealed concerns regarding the presence of undeclared allergens in foods.

The presence of undeclared allergens remains a serious concern to the 5-8% of children and 1-2% of adults in the UK (almost 2% of the population) who have an allergy. Young adults and children are the most common victims in reported incidents, and many result from undeclared allergens consumed in restaurant and takeaway meals.  Current figures give a rate of around 10 deaths and 4,500 hospital admissions each year as a result.

Officers took 50 samples for analysis from 41 food businesses of either whole meals or a specific food item. In all cases officers either requested, or the company claimed the food items were free from a specific allergen. After purchase the food business operator was informed that the sample was for analysis and that they would receive a copy of the analyst’s report and a follow up visit if there were any problems with the sample.

Of the samples taken, 23 were analysed for the presence of gluten, 22 for peanuts, 4 for dairy and 3 for egg (some items made more than one claim so were tested against each individual claim).

Most worrying was the failure of 7 out of 22 takeaway meals in response to the request for them to provide a peanut-free meal. One sample was used as part of a prosecution case, and resulted in a sentence of a 12 month community order, 100 hours of unpaid work and £1,000 in costs imposed upon three takeaway owners from Penrith. In respect of the other samples containing peanuts, follow up sampling or advice was provided as appropriate, including advising businesses that where the source of cross contamination cannot be established, they must inform the customer with an allergen that they are unable to guarantee an allergen free meal.

The 23 samples of foods that claimed to be gluten-free consisted of bakery products, pub and takeaway meals and butchers sausages.  Three samples described as ‘gluten-free’ were found to contain gluten on analysis - a pizza, a cake and a sausage.

One sample of sticky toffee pudding described as ‘vegan and dairy free’ was found to contain casein, a milk protein.  The ingredient was changed and a follow up sample was found to be satisfactory.

In the last year, Cumbria Trading Standards has prosecuted two takeaways - one each in Barrow and Penrith, which between them have incurred fines and costs of almost £10,000 in respect of the supply of meals containing undeclared peanut protein.

The allergens sampling  project, now in its third year, has identified an ongoing requirement to verify that allergen management systems in food businesses are working correctly and that food business operators in Cumbria are compliant with allergen requirements.   

Cllr Celia Tibble, Cumbria County Council’s Cabinet Member for Trading Standards, said:

“It is vitally important that food outlets understand food allergies and the importance of preventing any cross-contamination occurring in their kitchens. To those who suffer from an allergy, even a tiny amount of the allergen contained within food can have devastating consequences.”

John Greenbank, Cumbria Trading Standards Manager, said:

“We would urge food businesses to be aware of allergens when preparing meals.  The recent sentences imposed in Barrow and Penrith should act as a warning that cases like this are treated extremely seriously by the courts.”

Recent sampling carried out by Cumbria County Council’s Trading Standards department has revealed concerns regarding the presence of undeclared allergens in foods.