Food allergies and the canteen

Students may have varied food-based allergies, including allergies to peanuts, dairy, gluten and egg. Some of these allergic reactions can lead to severe reactions such as anaphylaxis while other side effects may be less severe. Nonetheless, the school canteen plays an important role in ensuring the health and well being of students. Minimising the risks associated with allergies in a school canteen environment must be part of a whole school risk management plan.

If there is a student in the school with allergies to some foods what does the canteen need to do?
  • Government schools are required to develop an individual health care plan for each student at risk of anaphylaxis.
  • Canteen staff and volunteer helpers need to be made aware of children at risk of allergic reactions. However, canteen staff should deal with personal and health information sensitively and confidentially.
  • Encourage parents of students with allergies to visit your canteen to check which food products may be safe for their child.
  • Set up a procedure for responsibility for serving the child including who is responsible for checking the product ingredient list and who is responsible for serving the child.
  • Include the needs of children who are allergic when planning your stock purchases.
What can the school canteen do to minimise risk?
  • Review the canteen menu and provide healthy alternatives for students with allergies.
  • Ensure food handling and hygiene procedures are in place and are practised by all canteen staff including volunteers.
  • Inform all staff and volunteers of food allergic children in the school and ensure they have awareness of food allergies and cross contamination issues.
  • Ensure that the promotion and encouragement of new foods, including any taste testing, is properly supervised to avoid pressure on students to try foods known to contain common food allergens.
Food handling and hygiene procedures:
  • Thoroughly wash hands before and after handling foods that are known to be highly allergenic.
  • Take care when using gloves. Use new gloves when handling foods that are known to be highly allergenic or when making the lunch of a child who is at risk of anaphylaxis.
  • Use different utensils and equipment for preparing highly allergenic foods.
  • Wash contaminated kitchen utensils in hot soapy water or in the dishwasher.
  • Use hot soapy disposable paper towels to wipe surfaces that have had the highly allergic food on them, i.e. do not use a dishcloth.
  • Avoid cross contamination. Take care not to contaminate margarine and other spreads.
  • Store highly allergenic foods in sealed, well labelled containers.
  • Some canteens place a sticker on the child’s bag when the order is placed to alert the person preparing the food and filling the order.
Does the school canteen need to ban allergens?

For schools where there are children with severe allergies to nuts (i.e. peanuts and tree nuts), a risk minimisation policy for school canteens should be implemented. Remove items with the relevant nut as an ingredient from the menu (e.g. peanuts, nut spreads) to minimise risk of cross contamination. However, this does NOT apply to foods labelled “may contain” a known allergen. These do not need to be removed from the menu (ASCIA, 2006). There is no reason to ban cows milk and egg-containing foods from the canteen. Management of children and young people with allergies to such common foods relies on education of the child, the school and the canteen staff and provision of an appropriate plan of action.

If a school does decide to ban peanuts or peanut products, it should NOT claim to be “peanut free” as such a claim can not reliably be made and, if made, may lead to a false sense of security about exposure to peanuts and peanut products.

Should Canteen Managers receive training?

It is important that all Canteen Managers be involved in anaphylaxis training with other school staff. Canteen Managers should then seek to increase the awareness of their staff including their volunteers.

DEC Recommendations

The Department of Education and Communities (DEC) does not recommend the banning of allergens in the school. However, these decisions in the end are not made by DEC but are made at the local level with the individual school.

If you are a canteen manager, we encourage you to talk to your principal about what an allergen ban means for the canteen. Raise questions such as, what does it mean for the many products that contain traces of nuts, etc? It will help the school to see the great difficulty that a ban means and that banning something gives a false sense of security.

Each school has a Student Welfare consultant and this person can be contacted to give further advice. In addition, DEC can be contacted at the state level at 02 9244 5861. However, it is best to talk to the principal and the Student Welfare Consultant before calling DEC.

If a school is particularly concerned about legal issues, the school can contact DEC’s Legal Services team. However, only DEC employees can do this. If you are a canteen manager and are concerned about legal requirements or legal ramifications, you should talk to your principal who can contact legal service

What other information is available?

The Anaphylaxis Guidelines for Schools. 2nd Edition, 2006 Provides a step-by-step guide for Principals to assist them in providing a safe and supportive environment for students at risk of an anaphylactic reaction. This document can be accessed at www.schools.nsw.edu.au/studentsupport/studenthealth/conditions/anaphylaxis/index.php

ASCIA Guidelines for prevention of food anaphylactic reactions in schools, preschools and childcare centres: www.allergy.org.au/pospapers/anaphylaxis.htm

Useful Websites

NSW Food Authority www.foodauthority.nsw.gov.au

Anaphylaxis Australia www.allergyfacts.org.au

Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy www.allergy.org.au

References: P and C Journal Term 2 2006, Geraldine Batty (Anaphylaxis Aust)  Fresh Tastes @ School Newsletter 5, August 2006