Interview with a School’s Catering Administrator, Karen Ratcliffe, on the Challenges of Implementing Natasha’s Law

Karen Ratcliffe is the Catering Administrator for LM School Services, which supports the catering needs of nearly 1,500 students at Lytchett Minster School in Dorset. We first spoke to Karen when she went looking for a solution that would ensure her school would be fully compliant with Natasha’s Law. 

We asked Karen what her biggest concerns and challenges were with respect to implementing the necessary changes at the administration level of their catering business.

Innovating through Crisis

It has been a challenging year for all schools, with Lytchett Minster School being no different. With 1,500 children to cater for in a 30-minute morning break and a 45-minute lunch hour, things were made even more challenging during the pandemic. With groups now split into year bubbles, the catering team (consisting of eight staff in total, including Chef and Administrator) used mobile hot units and trolleys to serve the various student bubbles, often rushing loaded trolleys to safely distanced sectors of the school through all sorts of weather. The school also innovated through testing and implemented new routines and processes to adapt, with the ultimate goal of keeping the students safe. 

Of course, child safety is at the root of the Natasha’s Law initiative, having been brought about to protect children from unnecessary harm brought about by the accidental consumption of allergens. On a very practical level, what did this new regulation mean for Karen and the catering team at Lytchett?

Sandwiches and Wraps

Well firstly, Karen reviewed the full menu to decide what foods they served would now require labelling. Of course, the first thing that came to mind was the sandwiches and wraps. 

Sandwiches and wraps are an integral part of the daily menu. These are prepared fresh, on site and sold for a fixed price of £1.20. It simply would not be feasible to buy these in pre-packed, given the restrictions on pricing. The school must also make a main meal available for £2.25, and so cost restrictions are always at the back of the team’s mind when trying to deliver a balanced menu that is suitable for their students, who range from 11 – 18 years of age, and include those with allergies, intolerances, and other medical conditions.

Key Concerns

Karen used FSA resources, and those on the site to help uncover which items on their menu were PPDS. After having scoured all the available information as well as attending a three-day Webinar, she still had some hard to answer questions, such as:

                      • Wrapped items – not prepacked, but put into an unsealed wrapping, such as a burger or pizza slice. Would these items need labelling as the new law was stating partially wrapped items would also require a label?
                      • Moving from boxed salads to a fresh salad bar. This would no longer require labels, but how could she ensure the students were given the best information on the ingredients in the salad items?
                      • Using leftovers to make sandwiches – would it still be possible to use these if they required unique labels every time? Would this mean more food waste?
                      • Substitutions – when substitutions happened, how much time would she have to create new labels, given that sometimes, there were only hours between the stock arriving, the preparation, then to being sold?

Benchmarking Recipes

Karen took a very practical approach and looked at the various solutions out there. She knew that one of their main suppliers was Brakes, and that all their information was integrated with Nutritics. She tested the Nutritics solution first by creating a sample egg mayonnaise sandwich recipe using the ingredients available on the database and then created the label that would be required to comply with Natasha’s Law. She would use this as a benchmark to help her estimate the overall requirements in order to be ready for the 1st October deadline. 

“I was quite surprised at how many ingredients are in a basic egg mayonnaise sandwich, when you break it down! And of course, we have two versions of this sandwich, depending on whether it is white bread or wholemeal. Then we might have different bread suppliers. The legislation states that the labels can’t just assume any bread, it must be accurate to the one used.”

Karen found creating the recipe to be quite intuitive, and printing the label was also easy. As part of her preparations, she had asked her IT department to research printer options, and in line with the advice given, had opted for a thermal printer. Thermal printers, which despite being more expensive initially, are a much more economical option long term, as they do not require ink. As we all know, ink can be very expensive over time!

Karen opted for a dedicated thermal label printer from Brother, then made sure she had a large volume of label rolls pre-ordered before the summer break. She also tested her ‘benchmark’ sandwich, by printing labels and making various adjustments until everything was working satisfactorily before the end of term.

“Come September, our IT department is usually inundated with various tasks. Our tills run on a card system, and when the new Year 7s come in, there is always a bit of time needed to get everything up and running, not to mention other important IT issues around the school. So, I made sure to solve the printer issue before the summer break with the help of IT. I suspect the labels will be harder to find in September when the deadline is looming as they were already out of stock from some suppliers!”

Karen recognised that in order to ensure her school would be fully compliant, there would need to be some changes implemented. For example: 

                      • They will need to be more selective with suppliers, ensuring they order from those that will help and support their labelling solution. 
                      • It is likely that they will have less duplication of suppliers too. All bread will need to come from one supplier, to reduce the overall volume of recipes and labels needed for a single food item – i.e., there would only be one egg mayonnaise sandwich on a wholemeal label needed. 
                      • They will also work to an initial two-week main meal rota, so that the chef has time to create further seasonal rota variations of the main meals and to give Karen time to create the new recipes on the system ready for a new rota change. 
                      • Creating sandwiches on the fly, from ingredients simply available or spare in the kitchen would no longer be viable, at least in the beginning, until they embed the recipe creation and label printing processes. 

Something Karen said several times during her interview was “I just want to get it right.” 

Despite having only a small team to get things done and the fact that Karen still needs to do all of the implementation for Natasha’s Law on top of all of her other daily tasks (not to mention getting through a pandemic!!), she is very determined to organise the system correctly. She has decided to create full and accurate recipes and labels for everything on the school menu, not just PPDS items. Karen plans to display these labels on a board in their large open plan cafe, meaning the full ingredient lists and allergens in the various food items the students, staff and visitors can purchase are available should anyone need to see what is in the food they are choosing to eat. 

She will also implement a means for the labels to be sent quickly and easily to anyone that requires the information, including the school first aid team, should they ever need to know quickly what was in something that has been eaten by a student who has become ill. 

Back to school in September will be a blur, but because Karen has taken the first steps to getting ready, she knows exactly what is left on her roadmap before the deadline. She is going to connect her remaining suppliers, complete her recipes and make labels available on demand to her team. 

When the doors open for the next year of school, she will be relieved to know that any hidden risks have now been made visible, making the children’s lunchtime experience less about worry and risk and more about what really matters …. getting to the curly fries before anyone else does!