Retailers' Food Allergy Protocol

Retailers' Food Allergy Protocol

Bakeries emphasize food allergen labels and education to protect at-risk customers

When it comes to food allergies and the in-store bakery, not educating employees can have serious consequences.

It is important for staff to be trained about food allergens “because a customer’s life may be at risk,” said Mary Kay O’Connor, director of education at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis.

Ahold [4]’s Giant-Carlisle division, which includes Martin’s, has been holding training on food allergies in phases chainwide, a process which should be completed early in 2013.

Bakery, kitchen and deli employees at Richmond, Va.-area Martin’s stores received the training about a year ago.

“So everyone was aware of the labeling [used in-store], everyone was aware of … the signage that had to be put out,” said Valerie Waters, in-store nutritionist.

Waters approved the written materials used in the training at the stores in her area.

“There was a section on gluten-free, like what is gluten-free,” she said about the training materials. “If your customers ask you about it you just need to make sure you know what it is.”

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In the case of customer questions that employees weren’t sure of, the training materials said to refer the customer to the nutritionist for help.

Waters noted that regular education sessions are important because of employee turnover.

Retailers like Stew Leonard’s call out allergens on ingredient labels in the bakery. Photo courtesy of Stew Leonard’s

At Stew Leonard’s [6], Norwalk, Conn., all hourly employees take a food safety course when they are hired and undergo a refresher class once a year, according to a company spokesperson.

Staff also are taught to change gloves often, sanitize work areas between batches and use proper labeling.

For retailers without formal food allergen training in place, the IDDBA has a number of free resources available for download on its website.

“The directions that we suggest are that, first of all, an associate have an understanding of what a sensitive ingredient or a food allergen is and the impact that it might have on the customer. We also think it’s extremely important that an associate knows where to find information so that when a customer is asking about products that may contain an ingredient to which they’re sensitive or allergic or intolerant that you know where to go to find that ingredient list or that product label and then offer it to them,” said O’Connor.

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Many retailers, including Martin’s, call out possible allergens on the labels of bakery items packaged in-store.

“So at the bottom of the ingredient list, there’s always an allergen information, what it contains, and that of course includes the eight major allergens,” said Waters.

The eight major allergens are fish, peanuts, wheat, soy, tree nuts, eggs, dairy and shellfish. The chain also makes sure to highlight these allergens when giving out product samples.

“If any sampling is ever done at the bakery, there’s always an allergen statement that is put out. So in case there’s any kids that are floating around that want to grab a cookie and aren’t sure, we always have a big allergen statement that is right in front of the samples so they would know, kind of beware. And they’re pretty good about that, around the whole store, not just in the bakery,” said Waters.

Cross-Contamination in the Bakery

Customers with more severe allergies also may be concerned about cross-contamination, where even though a particular bakery item doesn’t contain the allergen it may have come in contact with it at some point in the baking process.

“We generally have signage in the bakery that says that we use … the common food allergens, so that customers need to be aware that basically any items that they buy in the bakery could be contaminated with those allergens,” said Leah McGrath, the dietitian at Ingles Markets [8], Asheville, N.C.

While Tops Friendly Markets [9], Williamsville, N.Y., includes allergen warnings on all items packaged in stores, it posts extra signs about cross-contamination in certain places.

“And then in other areas, for example our doughnut case, we have signs posted at all of our doughnut cases saying that the product could … potentially come in contact with peanuts. Just because we use peanuts in the department,” said Mary Lewalski, director of deli and bakery.

Peanut doughnuts are kept on the bottom shelf of the case so that nothing falls down onto the other products, Lewalski added.

Gluten-free bakery items, many produced by a local manufacturer, are often set up on a separate table alongside products that have no sugar added, Lewalski said. Those two types of baked goods might also be displayed near the pharmacy, or there could be a sign in the pharmacy directing customers to find gluten-free and no sugar added items in the bakery.

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The gluten-free products are not baked in Tops stores because the retailer could not guarantee those items would never come in contact with gluten.

Other retailers have responded to increasing customer demand for gluten-free products in the bakery.

Stew’s makes a gluten-free chocolate pecan cookie created by Bethy Leonard, as well as gluten-free cheesecakes. The retailer will soon offer gluten-free cupcakes. Stew’s has tried other types of products that were not as popular with customers and so stopped making them, a company spokesperson said.

Martin’s stores with bakeries that are supplied by Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods carry some gluten-free cookies, including macaroons and an amaretto variety, said Waters.

While some retailers, like Ingles, provide lists of all the gluten-free items carried in stores, Martin’s found records of allergen-free foods too problematic to maintain.

“We get a lot of requests for lists. And we don’t do that for liability issues and just because products and manufacturers change their ingredients so often that we just can’t keep up with it and we don’t want the liability of someone getting their hands on an old list, even if we were able to keep up with it,” said Waters.

With or without such lists, industry experts agreed it was important stores are able to provide additional information or answer questions when it comes to allergens.

“I think it can certainly be almost an expectation for consumers at this point. And I think still today it’s a point of differentiation. Not every retailer is doing it,” said Jonna Parker, in-store bakery specialist at Nielsen Perishables Group, Chicago.

Parker pointed out that customers often buy bakery items for parties or other events where another guest might be the one with the allergy, so the purchaser is unfamiliar with what to look for.

“So I think consumers expect that knowledge to be given to them, especially in the bakery where they’re often not just buying for themselves,” said Parker.

Waters said Giant-Carlisle and Martin’s customers can ask one of the chain’s six in-store nutritionists if they have any concerns that the bakery staff is unable to address. If there is no nutritionist in their area, customers can also call the retailer’s hotline, which often directs allergen questions to Waters.

“So I often get hotline questions. A customer in Richmond wants to know if this XYZ product is egg-free, gluten-free, whatever free. Can you contact her, him or her, and of course I would just find the information out and then contact them and talk to them about it,” said Waters.

While staff can provide information on allergens in products, they should leave the purchasing decision up to the customer, said the IDDBA’s O’Connor.

“The other thing that we think is pretty critical is that we feel it’s the customer’s responsibility to look then at that ingredient list and to have the customer make decisions about whether the product may be safely consumed or not. In other words, we do not encourage the associate to make a health recommendation but leave that decision up to the customer,” O’Connor said. 

Ultimately, customers with severe allergies probably already know what to avoid.

“I think though that from what I know as far as peanut allergens and things like that, someone that’s highly allergic would never buy product from a full-service bakery or bulk from any area,” said Tops’ Lewalski.

The same goes for those customers with severe gluten intolerance.

“They’ll buy packaged products that [are] already sealed, never been tampered with, those type of things. They will not buy from the bakery.”

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