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Allergens; not just in food. Check your beers!

Written by Nigel Sadler, @NigelSommelier – Ex-brewer. Beer & Brewing Educator, IBD Qualified: Malting, Brewing & Distilling. International Beer Judge, UK Beer Sommelier of the Year (2012) & Cask Marque Assessor.

Following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, the 15 year-old who collapsed and died on a plane due to an allergic reaction to the sesame contained in a baguette, bought from Pret a Manger, in November 2016, there has been not only an increase in calls for tighter allergen labelling but also increased staff training and awareness.

However, most of us assume that allergens are purely edible food based and forget that with today’s burgeoning beverage industry, whether alcoholic or not, many producers are experimenting with a whole range of ingredients that might well be allergenic to some of the population:

“More than 150 million Europeans suffer from chronic allergic diseases and the current prediction is that by 2025 half of the entire EU population will be affected (EAACI, 2016)”

The UK Office of National Statistics show that 15 deaths resulted in the period 2012-2016 from allergic reactions. 5 of them children.

In 2014, the Food Information Regulations (FIRs) came into place which required that 14 main allergens must be identified and that food business operators should notify consumers clearly, by various means, when these are present in a food or drink product.

The 14 allergens listed are by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), along with further information, at www.allergytraining.food.gov.uk/english/rules-and-legislation/ are:

  • Cereals containing gluten, namely: wheat (such as spelt and khorasan wheat), rye, barley, oats
  • Crustaceans for example prawns, crabs, lobster, crayfish
  • Eggs and products thereof
  • Fish but not isinglass finings
  • Peanuts and products thereof.
  • Soybeans
  • Milk (including lactose)
  • Nuts; namely almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia (or Queensland) nuts
  • Celery (including celeriac)
  • Mustard
  • Sesame
  • Sulphur dioxide/sulphites, where added and at a level above 10mg/kg or 10mg/L in the finished product. This can be used as a preservative in dried fruit
  • Lupin, which includes lupin seeds and flour and can be found in types of bread, pastries and pasta
  • Molluscs like cockles, mussels, whelks, oysters, snails and squid

In addition to this list, it is a little known fact that liquorice, amongst other things such as certain colourings, must also be labelled as an ingredient on alcoholic drinks (www.gov.uk/food-labelling-and-packaging/food-and-drink-warnings).

Looking at possible beer allergens specifically, apart from the usual gluten containing cereals of Barley, Wheat, Oats and Rye, we are seeing not only increased use of lactose (Milk) sugar in Milk Stouts and in low alcohol beers (where it helps replace lost “body” in the beer once the alcohol is removed) but also use of such things as shellfish (Moluscs) and real Peanut butter (not the flavouring which is usually peanut free but should be checked all the same). 

The other possible major beer allergen, which is generally labelled on wine and cider, is that of “sulphur dioxide/sulphites”.

In recent weeks, when I have been out and about undertaking my Cask Marque audits, I have been asking staff, of all levels, about possible allergens in beers on sale. Including 2 products I knew contained shellfish and lactose. Not one of the 2 dozen or so staff I asked could tell me anything or seemed to know where to find such information, which is slightly disturbing to say the least and reflects poorly on the trade in my opinion.

So, how do we go about protecting our customers? Firstly, ensure that all staff are allergen trained and aware of the basics. There’s plenty of online training for food safety and the FSA also runs a free course: www.allergytraining.food.gov.uk . Consider appointing an “Allergy Champion” who has access to all the ingredient lists for the foods and drinks you sell and to whom the other staff can refer for advice. This person must ensure that all information is checked regularly or as soon as a dish or drink is changed on the menu for instance, to maintain up to date records. Remember that the CaskFinder app also contains a wealth of beer information (where they have been updated by the brewer), including which allergens are in each beer. This is available simply by scanning individual pump clips. It’s free to download and would be good practice to ensure all bar staff have access to it.

Secondly, when buying in beer, always ensure that full allergen information is provided by the brewer, producer or wholesaler in writing, preferably. This can be on the container i.e. can, bottle, cask or keg, or the delivery note, both ideally. Verbal notification can lead to possible problems of “who said what” in case of an incident arising. Make sure that this information is then passed on to the “Allergy Champion” and listed accordingly.

Thirdly, make it clear to your customers where the allergen advice can be found i.e. at point of service, on the CaskFinder app, on menus or speaking to your trained staff.

Finally, when a beer containing an allergen has been served on draft make sure the line is flushed or cleaned thoroughly to minimise the risk of cross contamination in subsequent products. Record the cleaning in your cellar book.

If you are a brewer – make sure that all allergen information on all of your beers are kept up to date on the CaskFinder app. This can be done by contacting us for a login. 

Allergens in beer can no longer be avoided or ignored. Taking a keen interest and being proactive now, not only helps to avoid any unpleasant problems further down the line, but will also mark you out as someone who is interested in their customers’ well being.