Australia's food manufacturers and food-service businesses need to be acutely aware of losing an increasing portion of their customer base as food allergy numbers continue to rise and demands for food label standardisation are often misunderstood or even ignored. Maria Said, National President of Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia, will be elaborating on this topic at the 20th Australian HACCP food safety Conference in August.
The HACCP Conference is Australia's most significant food safety forum, hosted by leading training and assurance provider, Advancing Food Safety, SAI Global. At the Melbourne event, Maria will be outlining the potential impact of Australia's allergy increase in the food industry as well as listing the measures that professionals within this sector should be taking to meet consumer needs.
Research shows that the number of infants developing one or more food allergies in the first year of life has grown: it's estimated that one in ten Australian infants aged 12 months now have a food allergy and, while many outgrow this, those with peanut and tree nut allergy often have it for life. Currently up to two per cent of Australian adults and six per cent of children have a food allergy.
Alarmingly, hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) have doubled over the last decade in Australia, USA and UK. In Australia, admissions for anaphylaxis due to food allergy in children aged 0 to 4 years are even higher, having increased fivefold over the same period.
Consumers have a primary responsibility to care for themselves but they rely on information given to them (written and/or verbal) to make decisions about appropriate food consumption.
'These shocking statistics highlight the urgency for those within the food sector to consider how effectively they're communicating with consumers," Maria says. 'Working with major industry bodies, our goal is for all ingredient labels to provide reliable and consistent sources of information and food service staff to understand process when preparing food for someone with a food allergy. At present, we feel that there is still a lot of education required to instruct businesses on how to limit consumer risk. Risk cannot be totally removed but it can be reduced."
Maria will address the following topics at the HACCP Conference are included below.
The need for consistent labelling – Businesses continue to present non-descriptive information on packaging. There are currently over twenty varieties of precautionary statements in the Australian marketplace, many of which are unclear. Industry professionals need to address the issue of allergen labelling at an international level to reduce current inconsistencies in allergen labelling regulation and practise.
The food service industry needs to act now – It's taken since the early nineties to get manufacturers to understand the need for allergen labelling and to begin working together on this, and we still have a way to go. The foodservice industry and its workers are lagging behind and, with allergy numbers increasing; many restaurants and cafes are at risk of losing a growing portion of customers. This is not about guaranteeing a food is safe; it is about implementing strategies to reduce risk including effective communication on both the part of the consumer and the food service staff.
How increased awareness makes smart business sense - A customer with food allergies who feels understood and who has been adequately cared for will become a loyal customer. This loyal customer belongs to a family, social group, sporting club and even a workplace which could too become your -loyal customers'. Assessing customer needs and advocating for consistent allergen communication across the board will increase brand reputation and sales. Allergen management is about consumer and food industry/food service safety.
Other speakers at the HACCP Conference will include Major General John HartleyAO, CEO of Future Directions International, who will discuss Australia's role in helping alleviate possible future world crises in the supply of safe and quality food; and Bill McBride, FoodLink Management Services MD (and SQF Institute chairman), who will provide an update on the work of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).
Each year the HACCP Conference attracts delegates involved in the development, implementation and maintenance of food safety programs across manufacturing, food services, food science, produce and retail. The 2013 conference will address current issues such as regulatory change, international policy implementation and technology developments.
The 20th Australian HACCP Conference will take place at Pier Docklands, Melbourne VIC on 27-29 August, 2013. For further information visit www.haccptown.com.au/conference
Question: Are the allergy numbers in Australia continuing to rise?
Maria Said: Allergy numbers have risen in Australia over the last 15 years. Food allergies, eczema and allergic rhinitis are on the increase however asthma diagnosis appears to have plateaued.
Question: Why do you think the number of infants developing one or more food allergies in the first year of life has grown?
Maria Said: There are many theories as to why we have such an increase in food allergy, including multiple food allergies. Theories include the hygiene hypothesis (we have become too clean a society and out immune system has less infection to fight so it somehow confuses food that is healthy for most as a danger), a decrease in vitamin D absorption, delay of solids until age 6 months (mums are encouraged to still breast feed for at least 6 months but to introduce solids between 4 and 6 months). These are a few of several theories however, the bottom line is that, at this point in time, we do not really know.
Question: Are allergy numbers in grown adults also rising?
Maria Said: Doctors are reporting an increase in allergy in the adult population as well. Many of these are to medications and insect stings however older people can and do develop an allergy to foods they have eaten without a problem all their lives.
Question: What is the impact of Australia's allergy increase in the food industry?
Maria Said: The increase in food allergy in Australia and other western countries has had a huge impact on the food industry and any facility serving food. Many food manufacturing facilities were designed and built before food allergy was a real global public health issue. Segregation of common allergens in manufacturing sites, including production lines, is a challenging and costly issue. Food allergy is now a food safety issue that must be taken seriously by anyone manufacturing or serving food. Many of the major allergens are common everyday foods. Food allergy is not just a challenge for the allergic consumer.
Question: Why are some food service providers allowed to ignore the demand for food label standardisation?
Maria Said: Food service providers are not -allowed' to ignore food label standardisation. Although a label does not need to appear on food cooked and sold from the same premises,(i.e. bakery, butcher, restaurant, deli etc) an ingredient list must either be placed next to the food or given verbally to the customer that enquires about content. I will be discussing this in further detail at the 2013 HACCP conference.
Question: What is involved in consistent labelling?
Maria Said: It is important that food labels reflect ingredients contained in the food. If ANY amount of a major allergen/s is in a food of used in the processing of a food, it must be on the label.
Question: How does increased awareness makes smart business sense?
Maria Said: Increased awareness of food allergy makes smart business sense at many levels. Those with food allergies are not a single entity; they belong to a family, childcare, school, workplace, sport club etc. Customer loyalty is huge as safer food choices for allergic consumers have decreased over the years. If you make an effort to educate your staff and include safer practises for allergic consumers (when at all possible) the word will get around. Most people now have a family member, close friend or colleague with a food allergy.
Question: What are you hoping to achieve in regards to food label standardisation?
Maria Said: Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia continue working with key stake holders such as the Allergen Bureau, the Australia Food and Grocery Council, FSANZ and the state government. Environmental Health Australia whose members investigate allergic reactions and enforce current legislation, retailers and manufacturers to improve food labelling and access to safer food (both packaged and via food service facilities). It is important that we work towards criteria for the use of precautionary statements so consumers can make an informed decision on food choices and have a reasonable quality of life.
Question: How can food providers to communicate with their customers, successfully?
Maria Said: Firstly, allergic consumers MUST disclose their allergy and not make presumptions about food. Once a food allergy is disclosed, the facility should have a specific protocol for provision of a food to an allergic customer. All in the facility should be trained. Education and training is critical so that communication on food allergy works to reduce the risk of food allergic reactions in the food service sector. See booklet we worked on with NSW Food Authority for food service http://www.foodauthority.nsw.gov.au/_Documents/industry_pdf/be_prepared_be_allergy_aware.pdf
Question: What are your hopes for your talk at the 20th Australian HACCP Conference?
Maria Said: My hopes are that we reach out and increase awareness of the challenging issue of food labelling and food service so that those in the food industry walk away with better knowledge and understanding and hopefully tools to increase safety for both allergic consumers and their establishment. You can find out more about the event at www.haccptown.com/conference.