Allergen management; special diet planning in schools

In recent years schools have been reporting increasing numbers of pupils presenting themselves with allergies, intolerances, and coeliac disease, who require special meals to be created for them. At a recent meeting with a school meals provider, their food safety manager explained that they now have 1000 pupils on their special diet planning system, which involves the company nutritionist being tasked with creating bespoke menu plans for each individual child.

A significant proportion of these hypersensitive customers have multiple allergens that they need to avoid, and commonly include ingredients that are not in the ‘Top 14’ allergens. It can become a highly complicated process, and caterers’ endeavor to be as inclusive as possible by tailoring the regular menu with carefully selected ingredients that these customers can consume safely.

With these challenges, it is understandable that caterers must have a close working relationship with their school client colleagues and have open engagement with parents and guardians. Most of the effort is in the preparation, and healthy communication with all parties is essential. Once the diet is agreed to, delegated personnel then need to ensure the safe passage of the hypersensitive child through the dining experience, whilst limiting any possibility of them feeling singled out.

To deliver service excellence, caterers must have a robust allergen management plan as well as a proactive special diet system; these go hand in hand with special diet catering, and support from front of house teams is vitally important. There is a point in the food safety system where foods are passed over to customers, and supervisors on lunch duty must take on the risk management responsibility, especially when hypersensitive customers are at risk of being offered something from their friends packed lunch that they may be allergic to.

Allergen Accreditation encourages every school to engage non-kitchen staff in formal training and encourage working together as a whole team. All staff connected to the lunch service should be able to support the special diet aspect of the operation; without this team effort, issues can arise and near misses, or worse, can occur.

It is good practice to brief all the team before each lunch on the day’s menu, allergen ingredients and reminders covering special diet customers. This is an opportunity for any team member to raise any query and for the management to ensure that the whole team are confident with their responsibilities.

Schools and their caterers should adopt a policy of safeguarding tailored to their operation and can even influence the food service offer itself. For example, homemade breads can be served from the counters as opposed to being freely available in bread baskets on tables.

Any measures such as this should be carefully thought through as opposed to blanket banning certain ingredients and menu items, as the core food service offer must meet with efficiencies and the specification standards. Following open dialogue, parties can then agree on the safest method of delivery.

Special diet safeguarding policies should have at least three critical control points in place at each service as per the example below:

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Published on November 7th, 2022

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