With Allergy Awareness Week taking place from 25-30th April, it is the ideal time to put allergen management top of mind and update policies and training. Understanding and managing food allergies in care homes is vitally important, especially for residents with dementia as the consequences can be fatal.
One of the most common issues amongst caterers is the confusion between intolerances and allergies. A food intolerance or insensitivity is when someone has difficulty digesting a food and results in symptoms such as bloating and stomach pain whereas a food allergy can trigger an anaphylactic attack, requiring immediate emergency response. To avoid mistakes, every resident should have a care plan which includes medical conditions, medication, food allergies and intolerances.
Food intolerances and allergies can develop at any stage of life. NACC member Jacqui McPeake from JACs Ltd, allergen and catering specialist, says “More people are receiving a diagnosis later in life due to a greater understanding of the signs and symptoms of allergic reactions.” According to Jacqui, there is a noticeable increase in people reacting to legumes including pea protein, chickpeas and lentils. “The most dangerous allergen is milk as it can appear as a hidden ingredient in so many foods,” she says.
All staff in the food service chain from preparation to service need to be aware of any special dietary needs. Regular staff training is critical. Although free training is available via the Food Standards Agency (FSA) website, Jacqui recommends more in-depth training. “I have delivered food allergen awareness training for staff in care homes including caterers, nursing staff and carers. In one session, the carers learnt that providing gluten free toast for their resident who was coeliac meant the gluten free bread must be toasted in a separate toaster.”
Sue Cawthray, National Chair, National Association of Care Catering (NACC) supports the need for regular policy review and training, noting that “All care providers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their residents with a clear food allergen policy incorporated into the daily food safety systems. The food allergen policy must be available and communicated to all team members with training for catering teams and anyone that handles food, together with regular refresher training.”
Caterers can use coloured crockery to ensure allergen free meals are easily identified or label allergen free meals, however it is important that residents don’t feel singled out or that their menu choices are lacking compared to their peers. Sue from the NACC suggests “A good choice of alternatives should be offered and in the dining environment, reminders for staff should be subtle and not isolating, such as a different placemat discreetly signposting a resident with an allergy. It’s also essential to take into consideration the food being brought in by visitors within the food allergen policy.”
Using trusted suppliers that can guarantee food which is allergen-free is critical, but ingredients need to be checked every time in case they change. Julian Edwards from Allergen Accreditation says “As with all foods and beverages we buy in, we need to check the provenance and safety measures of that manufacturer. This includes making sure everything that’s on the packaging label is correct. That is why only approved suppliers who have been audited for due diligence should be used. The same applies for any free from products.”
Further information and assistance can be gained by contacting the following organisations:
Food Standards Agency
Natasha’s Allergy Research Foundation (NARF)