When choosing a dish from a restaurant menu or coffee and dessert at a café, you may notice special markings (often in the form of icons) indicating the presence of allergens. Providing such information is not voluntary but mandatory on the part of the food establishment. The legal basis for this requirement is Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011, which imposes an obligation on food business operators to inform consumers about substances or products that may cause allergies or intolerances, commonly referred to as "allergens."
It is worth mentioning that allergies differ from intolerance in terms of their mechanism of action, but in both cases, consuming a dish containing an allergen can be harmful and dangerous to human health.
In the list of allergens (how to prepare it is discussed later in this article), we should include any out of 14 food allergens listed in Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011. These allergens are:
Analyzing the main groups of allergens, it is worth noting some important facts and curiosities.
Peanuts form a separate group of allergens due to their unique biological characteristics and how the human immune system reacts to them. Peanut allergies are among the most common and potentially the most serious ones. Interestingly, peanuts are not actually nuts but seeds of leguminous plants. However, they are called nuts due to certain protein similarities with tree nuts such as almonds or walnuts.
Another noteworthy allergen is sulfur dioxide and sulfites. It may seem as an unconventional food ingredient, partly due to its form (gas). Sulfur dioxide is a preservative and a weak antioxidant used as a food additive (E220), especially in wine, dried fruits, and jams. Wines without sulfites do not exist (a minimal amount of these compounds is a byproduct of fermentation), but there are wines without their addition. Reducing the use of SO2 is currently a worldwide trend.
The last allergen we would like to highlight is lupin. Seeds of sweet lupin varieties are a source of valuable protein, making them suitable for the production of sports supplements or meat and dairy substitutes. Recently, an alternative to cheese made from lupin has been introduced to the Polish market.
There are several ways to present information about allergens and their presence in dishes. One of them is to use icons symbolizing a specific allergen next to the dish's name in which it appears. In this case, an appropriate caption must be included, leaving no doubt about the identification of the allergen. Allergen information must be clear and easily accessible to restaurant guests.
Another way to present a list of allergens is a table with the corresponding number of columns for allergens and rows for dish names. Then, fill in the table by marking, for example, with an "X," the relevant allergen(s) for each dish. Such a table with allergen information should be readily available for presentation upon Guest request. It does not have to be an integral part of the menu, but there should be a note in the menu indicating its availability in a visible place.
Allergen information must be provided in written form. However, it is essential to ensure that restaurant staff have knowledge of the ingredients in the dishes and can indicate their presence in dishes.
The primary source of information about allergens is the recipe book and the list of ingredients used to prepare a specific dish. In the first step, refer to the list of 14 allergens and indicate the presence of allergens based on this list. For example, a fish soup prepared with various types of fish and seafood may contain at least three allergens: crustaceans, fish, and mollusks and their derived products. If the same soup uses tomato puree or concentrate, which is a processed product, information about potential allergens will be provided on the product's label.
Product Ingredients: tomatoes, water, oil, spices (including sesame).
In such a situation, simply refer to the information provided on the label, with allergens clearly marked. It is also worth mentioning cross-contamination, which refers to the contamination of non-allergenic products with products containing allergens, often during food preparation.
When determining the presence of an allergen in a product, the term "may contain trace amounts" have been used so far. However, such a statement is incorrect and often questioned by official food control authorities because EU law does not define what amount of an allergenic substance should be considered "trace amount". Therefore, in case of ambiguous presence of a specific allergen, terms like "may contain..." or "possible presence..." can be used.
The use of these terms is directly related to cross-contamination, which can occur both in the production facility and in the restaurant kitchen. Whether and to what extent cross-contamination may occur during food preparation is addressed in the HACCP analysis, which is part of the mandatory documentation for every food establishment. However, if it is not possible to definitively determine whether cross-contamination occurred during the preparation of the dishes, it is advisable to include information that the dish "may contain" the specified allergen.
The allergen list in a restaurant should be prepared accurately, and it is not enough to do it once. The allergen list should be regularly updated whenever the menu changes (e.g. seasonally), which is unfortunately often neglected.