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Be a smart cookie: read the food label

As a food safety consultancy company, our team regularly has discussions about the potential risks. After all, our vulnerable aged care residents and children deserve the best! We share stories, brainstorm scenarios with each other to ensure we’re up to date with the latest trends and issues our clients are facing. With Allergy week in a couple of days, managing allergens has been at the top of our mind. The risk and potential outcome, if not handled correctly, is dire.

Jane, our dedicated Operations Coordinator and Trainer, shared an interesting story from her days working in the UK which expresses how simple it is to cross-contaminate. Unless you are regularly preparing food for a person with food allergies, the ins and outs of allergy management are more complicated than you think.

Operations Coordinator and Food safety Trainer for OSCAR Care Group
Jane Carpenter, OSCAR Care Group

It only takes a trace by Jane Carpenter

Let me set the scene of an experience I witnessed as an Assistant Manager.

In the hospitality industry, we talk about allergies and anaphylaxis, but do we understand as a Food Handler we are putting people’s lives at risk?! As an Assistant Manager Food Service, I worked for a corporate organisation in the City of London. The site had been refurbished to provide a self-service café operation, customers were able to help themselves and scan to pay for the products purchased. A full offer was available for Breakfast and Lunch.

A cookie oven was introduced as part of the refurbishment, this really enhanced sales as customers could smell cookies cooking when they arrived on site. All the team had been trained in Food Safety and allergen training so that they were able to adapt to the new working environment.

One of the Catering Assistants duties was cooking the frozen cookies. The pre-purchased frozen cookies were placed on baking paper, placed in the oven, and cooked for 20 minutes and then displayed on separate trays for customers to help themselves. All was going really well; the cookies were a hit and customers were loving them.

Then came the fateful day.

There were several early calls from staff stating they could not come in due to feeling sick. Regardless the show must go on and the café must open, so agency staff were called into cover the shifts. Everyone was running around like headless chooks trying to get the café open for the morning rush. Site inductions were carried out with the Agency staff however not having familiar staff working on site added additional pressure.

It was a big sigh of relief when the doors finally opened on time. A stream of customers came flooding in before they went onto their days work. The calm before the storm did not last for long…

The next scene is a gentleman wheezing and struggling to breathe. Everyone seemed to be staring at him like rabbits in the headlights and with no action being taken. His breathing was getting worse by the minute.

By sheer luck, the site nurse walked into the café and acted immediately. It was then assumed that the man was suffering an anaphylactic shock and the nurse acted accordingly. Thankfully the gentleman made a full recovery.

As the staff didn’t understand what was happening to him, it was confronting and scary for everyone there on the day and obviously for the man it was all happening too. Following this incident, a full investigation was required to help understand what went wrong. The investigation highlights some of the points below.

  • Staff on sick leave

  • Agency staff were not familiar with the site

  • Pressure to open the café in time

  • The gentleman in question attended the café daily and always had ordered a chocolate chip cookie with his coffee every morning.

  • Agency team not following the process of cooking the cookies.

  • Agency team members unfamiliar with product labels.

What happened was this…

An Agency team member unknowingly did not realise that one cookie type stated that it MAY contain nuts on the ingredient panel. All permanent staff members were trained to cook the cookies in batches of the same type, this day that did not happen. The Agency staff member wanted to get a variety of cookies out for the café opening. They mixed the cookie that MAY contain nuts on the same tray as the Chocolate Chip Cookies. The oil from the cookies mixed while cooking and contaminated the chocolate chip cookies with traces of nut, it was a ticking time bomb waiting to happen, and it did. It was a trace amount but that is all that was required.

We all think this will not happen to me - we are prepared but just one break in the link and it can happen to anyone.

What could have been done differently, you ask?

  • Greater detail in Allergen Management Awareness

  • Allergen Management Training for all staff

  • Reviewed induction procedure for all services available for situations where you have staff in that do not know the facility

  • Speak to the client about opening slightly later to make sure safe processes are implemented

  • Highlight a separate procedure for preparing the cookies made available for all to read

  • Be aware of what to do if someone has an anaphylaxis and a step by step guide of what to do

Be prepared and make sure there are no broken links in the process. Dealing with a tragedy is devastating for all.


By Jane Carpenter, Operations Coordinator and Trainer for OSCAR Care Group


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