Roles and responsibilities of authorised officers in food allergen management
Food safety standards are found in the national Food Standards Code (the Code). These standards provide the requirements for producing safe and suitable food and including product labelling. Across Australia both state and local governments share the responsibility to apply the Code to all food businesses.State governments normally regulate:
- primary producers
- home-based businesses
This arrangement can vary across Australia.
Food regulators find ways to achieve good public understanding of the law and compliance. The Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement Strategy outlines the role of authorised officers in:
- Generating compliance
- Monitoring compliance
- Responding to non-compliance
Food regulators, including authorised officers work in all three areas at all times and in an interconnected manner. Authorised officers may be working with food businesses to raise awareness of allergen management, while at any point in time, action can be taken to respond to non-compliance.
Authorised officers have a number of rights to ensure that the food being prepared and sold is safe, suitable and correctly labelled, wherever required. Examples include the right to:
- enter a business
- question the owner and staff to get further information,
- take samples for testing,
- check records, labelling, equipment and food handling practices.
When an authorised officer sees a non-compliance, the action taken depends on many factors, including:
- approach of the food business
- consistency in enforcement approach
Some actions may be:
- formal advice or warning letters
- improvement notices
- penalty notices
- taking away evidence
- prosecution for serious cases
These can vary across states and territories.
Section 7.3 and Appendix 4 of the compliance, monitoring and enforcement strategy provides more information about managing non-compliance for authorised officers.
There is an ever-increasing number of food recalls due to undeclared allergens in packaged food. Over the period from 2011 to 2020 undeclared allergens resulted in 321 food recalls across Australia. This was by far the most common reason for any recall event. Further details on food recalls, including those for undeclared allergens, can be found on the FSANZ website.
The Code provides information on the mandatory declaration of certain substances in packaged food to assist consumers with food allergy. If the food contains these substances as either an ingredient, a food additive or processing aid, then the labelling must declare the substance. More information can be found in Standard 1.2.3 of the Code.
The supplier of the food is responsible for correct food labelling. The supplier may be the local manufacturer or perhaps the importer of the food into Australia.
An authorised officer may be made aware of incorrect allergen labelling through an incident or complaint through the local council where the food was sold. The authorised officer will investigate with the local retailer that sold the food to confirm the specific food labelling, the sale and the supplier. They will then refer the complaint with those details to the authority of the state where the food was manufactured and labelled.
In this case, the importer, manufacturer and/or distributor needs to remove that food from sale. They must do this with Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the state or territory food agency. Authorised officers can also assist with this by making sure that these products are no longer available for sale.
It is important for food businesses to have reputable food suppliers to make sure their food is correctly labelled, and also trust that the supplier will alert them of a non-compliance that may result in a food recall.
The Implementation Subcommittee for Food Regulation (ISFR) Undeclared allergen incident and investigation protocol can assist authorised officers.
Provision of food allergen information
In some circumstances, foods may not be required to have any labelling, such as unpackaged foods on display or food prepared to eat straight away.
However, food businesses must still provide information about the allergens that are listed in The Code (Standard 1.2.3) in a food. This can be done by displaying written information next to the food or simply providing the information when the customer asks. For example, if a customer in a cafe asks if an unpackaged cake contains egg, the food business must be able to correctly tell the customer. This detail is found in Standard 1.2.1 of the Code. This information must also be provided using the required names of the allergens, as detailed in subsection 1.2.3-6(2) of Standard 1.2.3.
The authorised officer can assess the extent to which the food business complies with this aspect of the Code by asking questions. For example, an authorised officer could ask if the unpackaged lasagne made on site and displayed in the delicatessen, which has no labelling, contains any food allergens. They can also ask staff to show what they do and provide written procedures and checklists to prove that they are doing what they say.
This will allow the authorised officer to assess the food business’s ability to follow the Code.
Where the business is unable to provide the food allergen information requested, an authorised officer can take enforcement action with the food business.
The Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement Strategy provides further information for authorised officers, including actions that may be taken.
The aim of an authorised officer’s routine inspection of food businesses is to check that they comply with food safety laws. These inspections now include food allergen management in all food handling steps, from ordering ingredients to packaging and selling the food.
The ISFR Principles for the inspection of food businesses provides information on how to inspect a food business. It is the responsibility of the food business to identify food hazards and control risks. An inspection of a food business can check for compliance and tell the business what actions to take to minimise risk to consumers. Authorised officers should be assessing risk at all stages of the inspection:
- food receipt
- food storage
- food processing
- food display
- food transport
- cleaning and sanitising.
A good starting point is for the authorised officer to check any menus to see if there are any foods or meals that would be of risk to someone with a food allergy. Examples of such items might be those carrying claims, such as ‘gluten free’, ‘suitable for Coeliacs’, 'dairy free' or ‘nut free’.
During an inspection, if an authorised officer identifies poor food handling practices (from food receipt through to handing the food to the customer) that fails to prevent cross contact between allergens and other food products or surfaces, the authorised officer can take actions to correct these practices (for example, education and advice). The Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement Strategy can also guide authorised officers on what actions to take.
For example, an authorised officer may find through questioning and/or observation any of the following issues:
- Staff handling food do not have the skills and knowledge to manage food allergens in the business
- Wait staff are not aware of their duty to tell consumers about the allergens in food on the menu when a customer asks for it
- Chefs contaminate food in the kitchen with allergens by not following correct processes
If this is the case, the authorised officer should notify the food business owner and refer to the Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement Strategy. The action taken should be based on risk.
This Audit Tool has been developed to help authorised officers assess food allergen management in food service businesses.
Food of the nature and substance demanded
The Food Acts in each state and territory state that food a customer is given should be the food that the customer ordered.
Non-compliance with this requirement occurs if the customer was specifically told a food did not contain a particular ingredient or allergenic substance, but it did. An example of this is if a customer asks for no peanuts in their meal and the restaurant confirms it doesn't, but supplies a peanut-containing meal anyway (either directly or through cross-contamination during preparation).
All food allergen complaints in the food service industry should be investigated by the local authorised officer at the food business that handled or served the food. Once the complaint or incident is received by the agency, it must be acted upon quickly. The authorised officer needs to find out from the customer what allergies they or their dependent has, what they have eaten, the environment they were in at the time, the details of their reaction or illness, and what communication happened between the consumer or carer and the food business.
The authorised officer should conduct an investigation as per ISFR Undeclared Allergen Incident and Investigation Protocol. State authorities can provide help if needed.
Where there is enough evidence to prove that the food being sold did not comply with the customer’s demand, then the authorised officer can offer advice and/or take action against the food business.
Content updated April 2023.