Allergen revolution

allergen allergies

Chris Binge asks why the big brands are not doing more to help foodservice wholesalers and caterers prepare for the approaching allergen revolution.

What is the most important day in December this year? It’s December 13, of course – FIC Day, otherwise known as the day when the Food Information to Consumers regulation becomes active.

What’s the significance? On that day, all establishments that feed customers – in other words, caterers – are legally obliged to have specific product information available for their customers. All of this is already detailed on the labels of most pre-packaged foods, but under changes to EU food information regulations, they will have to be available for all products made by caterers from ingredients. Failure to comply could lead to caterers being landed with hefty fines.

The changes to the law have been known for a long time now, giving businesses time to prepare. We’re not much more than a month from a monumental change in the catering industry, but is it ready? Frighteningly, the answer for many is “No.”

Data pools: A great solution… in theory

Strangely, many caterers and big brand manufacturers are just waking up to the realisation of what the new regulations entail – a mass gathering and collation of the required information. Wholesalers have been handed the problem by default.

Fortunately there is a solution close to hand: data pools. These are simply electronic filing cabinets where product manufacturers enter all the information about the products they produce: barcode number, product name, case size, ingredients, nutritional data and allergen information – the list goes on. The data pools have all the information that caterers need to comply with the law, provided manufacturers have input their product data.

But therein lies the problem. I read in a GS1 article (GS1 is a global, not-for-profit supply chain organisation) that the ‘big brands’ are much further advanced in the process of providing the data needed than smaller manufacturers. However, in my experience, this is simply not true.

Seven years ago, we built a data pool called Erudus, which has more than 600 suppliers and data on 10,000 products, and is used by many leading independent wholesalers to provide product specifications and data to customers. It’s been supported by many smaller and mid-sized manufacturers and a few of the larger ones too, such as McCain Foods. These companies had the foresight to see that contributing their product data reduced their workload, because it acts as a central data point where many wholesalers can access the information – that means these manufacturers don’t have to deal with a series of independent enquiries.

Big brands: Hang your heads in shame

With the announcement of the FIC changes, requests were made to the big brands for their products’ data to be sent electronically so that it could be imported into Erudus, allowing wholesalers to supply the caterers’ data needs easily and simply. Almost all manufacturers have agreed to send or provide product data either directly or through an alternative data pool.

But in almost all cases, it is just enough to satisfy the FIC requirements and isn’t comprehensive. This isn’t top secret or commercially sensitive information and we are still waiting for some of the big brands to provide any information at all. And that is despite being harassed by a multitude of wholesalers and by us!

At the time of writing, all manufacturers bar one have said they will provide the data, but not one has been able or willing to actually do it – so we wait to see if the promises will be met. Our customers are getting more anxious by the day.

It is disappointing that the big brands are so unprepared to support their foodservice customers. Initially, one of the big companies point-blank refused to provide the necessary information on its products, instead advising caterers to “look at the labels”. Do these suppliers have any understanding of how a busy kitchen works?

Subsequently, the collective pressure and the threat of adverse publicity and damage to trading relationships induced a complete about-turn in this instance. But it’s a shame that strong-arm tactics had to be brought into the discussion to get agreement – and we still haven’t seen any data.

As December 13 approaches, I say this: Well done to the real foodservice suppliers who understand their customers’ needs and work with them to find solutions; big brands – hang your heads in shame.

Click here for the full allergens list

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Chris Binge is the chief executive of Fairway Foodservice, a buying group working on behalf of 17 foodservice wholesalers. The members' collective turnover in 2012 was £494m

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