THE cost of eating out is about to rocket thanks to a European edict on food allergens due to come into force at the end of the year.
As exclusively revealed in The Sun this week, Restaurants, cafes and other venues serving food are currently “in crisis” rushing to prepare for stringent rules which take effect in December.
All businesses including hotels, pubs, takeaways, and motorway service stations will be required to record, label and track all foods which could contain any of 14 allergens.
Websites and menus must be changed with staff able to identify all dishes which contain ingredients likely to cause a reaction like nuts, shellfish, milk, gluten, eggs and even the garden flower lupin.
The process will run into hundreds of millions of pounds with experts warning this will be passed onto customers.
Samuel Tombs, economist at Capital Economics, said: “If restaurants have to comply with these regulations ultimately you would expect this to be reflected in the prices they charge consumers.
“This could lead to a rise in the cost of eating out.”
Currently managers and staff should be able to tell customers whether a food may contain an allergen but there is no requirement to be more specific.
But from December 13 all venues must be able to give accurate details of exactly which allergens they contain with experts warning the industry is woefully unprepared to meet the deadline.
They say consumers will ultimately end up footing the extra £375 million a year training, labelling and administrative bill.
A spokeswoman for the British Hospitality Association (BHA) said: “The big companies will be managing this, I think it is the smaller businesses who might be struggling to get everything in place.
“The industry needs to get all its ducks in a row and I don’t think it is ready yet, it is something that everybody has got to get to grips with, there may currently be some panic with some restaurants.”
An industry source said lack of guidance by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has left hundreds of restaurants and eateries nowhere near ready to implement the rules which were published in October 2011.
He said: “The hospitality industry is currently in absolute crisis with many places totally unprepared for these rules when they come into force.
“Any member of staff must be able to say exactly what allergens a food contains with all ingredients clearly labelled.
“This is a colossal task in terms of adapting websites, training staff, and making sure everyone is up to scratch from December 13, and it has just not happened.
“The Food Standards Agency (FSA) should have been making sure these processes were all in place long ago, but they have not done so.
“There are thousands of smaller independent outlets which will have to comply with this, like bed and breakfasts, farm shops and burger vans, anyone who supplies food.”
Supermarket and other packaged foods must currently list all ingredients, and although there is no requirement to name allergens many choose to say whether a product “may contain” one.
The same is true of produce supplied to restaurants and other eateries although every allergen contained in bulk-supplied food will now have to be listed and tracked from supplier to table.
The source added: “For example, if a dish contains tomato puree, that’s all a restaurant needs to be able to specify if asked, going forward they must be able to say what allergens that tomato puree contains.
“All staff must be trained to know exactly which allergens are in every single ingredient and when bulk produce is decanted on site for use in the kitchen it must all be relabelled, again with all of the 14 allergens listed.
“The only thing this doesn’t apply to is wine, which in fact can contain fish, egg and sulphites.”
The BHA said with two per cent of the population suffering from a food allergy there could be up to 160 million requests for information each year.
Including the cost of labels, literature and website updates, if staff spent five minutes dealing with each request at an estimated £15 an hour, this would add up to £200 million a year.
However with the cost of staff training included, the BHA estimates this cost could rise to £375 million and with NHS figures showing 20 per cent of the population think they have an allergy, it could be 10 times this.
The BHA said said putting a system in place will cost a small restaurant with around 10 staff around £1,250 a year.
It has issued a ‘toolkit’ of advice and workshops for businesses to make sure their staff are up to scratch.
BHA food expert John Dyson said: “The industry is struggling to catch up, there is a long way to go for many small businesses and even some larger ones are behind.
“This will have to come from somewhere, and businesses will either have to decrease their profit margins or increase their prices to make up the difference, this will be a choice for each business.
“The another issue is that it could be several weeks or months after the deadline before a venue serving food is asked to provide these details by a customer, by which time the urgency will have died down and they may have taken their eye off the ball and be caught off guard.
Lindsey McManus, deputy chief executive of Allergy UK, said: “This is going to be quite major for the food industry.
“You would like to think they would be ready, however it does not surprise me that they are not, and I think it will be the smaller businesses who will find it really difficult.
“But it will make a difference to so many people with food allergies.”
The FSA said businesses have been given a three-year transitionary period to allow them to make changes.
It said: “The new regulation will build on current allergen labelling provisions for pre-packed foods and will introduce a new requirement for allergen information to be provided for foods sold non-packed or pre-packed for direct sale.
“The three year transition period allows businesses to make the necessary changes to their processes and labelling designs in order to meet the provisions laid out in the legislation.”
A spokesman added: “We are confident that businesses will be ready for the changes to food allergen labelling.
“There is a great deal of information available through the FSA, Local Authorities, Consumer Groups and trade bodies to ensure food businesses will be up to speed by December.”
The 14 allergens
Cereals containing gluten such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt or khorasan
Crustaceans, for example prawns, crabs, lobster, crayfish
Milk (including lactose)
Nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia (or Queensland) nuts
Celery (including celeriac)
Sulphur dioxide (more than 10mg/kg or 10mg/L)
Lupin (seeds are used to make flour)
Molluscs for example clams, mussels, whelks, oysters, snails and squid