How the food industry is failing diners with allergies

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bowl of nuts

In their 2017 Food Allergy and Intolerance Programme, The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimated that there are 2 million people in the UK who are diagnosed with a food allergy. Younger children are primarily affected, with around 1 in every 14 children having at least one food allergy, however many grow out of these by the time they start school.

Allergy laws in restaurants

A 2018 study released by the FSA in partnership with Allergy UK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign found that 60% of young people (aged 16-24) with an allergy or intolerance have avoided dining out due to their condition. Of those that have allergies, 55% reported that they always research the menu online before going to a new or unfamiliar place. This amount of people either feeling the need to do research or avoid eating out altogether just shows how unsafe allergy sufferers can feel in restaurants.

Food Labelling

Currently, there are measures that aim to protect those that suffer from allergies when dining out in restaurants. One of the main regulations currently in place is the approach to food labelling. As a part of an EU legislation set out in 2014, restaurants MUST provide information on the 14 major allergens, which are:

·         Celery

·         Cereals containing gluten

·         Crustaceans

·         Eggs

·         Fish

·         Lupin

·         Milk

·         Molluscs

·         Mustards

·         Tree Nuts

·         Peanuts

·         Sesame seeds

·         Soya

·         Sulphur dioxide (sulphites)

These legal guidelines ensure that those eating out are made aware of when these 14 main allergens are present in any dishes, and any restaurants that don’t comply can be hit with a fine. Although labelling is mandatory across the EU, it is only a legal requirement for the 14 main allergens, and anyone suffering from an allergy to something outside of these may struggle to find proper labelling when dining out.

Many restaurants have already implemented nutritional and allergy information into their menus to abide by EU regulations. But to ensure your restaurant is as accessible as possible for those with allergies, I suggest also providing a menu which includes a list of full meal ingredients that is available for those that ask, as it will help minimise any confusion and take pressure off the wait staff.

Cross-contact and cross-contamination

Although there are no strict laws on cross-contamination, the FSA provide some advice on controlling it. They suggest:

·         Having separate work surfaces, chopping boards and utensils for foods prepared free from one or several allergens and cleaning utensils before each usage, especially if they were used to prepare meals containing allergens.

·         Storing ingredients and prepared foods separately in closed and labelled containers.

·         Keeping ingredients that contain allergens separates from other ingredients.

·         Washing hands thoroughly between preparing dishes with and without certain allergens.

If a restaurant can’t avoid cross-contamination, they are advised to inform customers that they cannot provide an allergen-free dish.

This rather weak approach to cross-contamination can mean that even though restaurants are advised to prepare food in a manner that will keep customers with allergies safe, it cannot always be ensured and mistakes can be made. I’d personally love to see a change in the law that requires all allergen-free dishes to be made in a separate area and penalties for the restaurants who do not abide. Cross-contamination is one of the largest threats to people with allergies when it comes to dining out, and as hospitality professionals, we should do everything we can to ensure our customers are at ease and as safe as possible.

Natasha’s Law

In July 2016, 15-year-old teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died of anaphylaxis on a flight after eating a Pret a Manger baguette she had purchased in Heathrow Airport. Natasha suffered from a sesame seed allergy, an ingredient which, although present, was not listed on the item’s nutritional label.

Unlike in restaurants, the rules that surround labelling for takeaway food that is prepared on site are much less strict and do not require labelling of the 14 main allergens, or even all of the ingredients used. It is this gap in the law that her relatives are fighting, proposing stricter regulations under ‘Natasha’s Law’, which will make it mandatory to supply the full ingredient listing on all products, regardless of the environment they are made and sold in.

In response to this, late last month, the Government announced they would look to set out new proposals to toughen food labelling laws.

In my newly published book, Bespoke. How to radically grow your bar and restaurant business through personalisation, I discuss how I believe restaurants should approach allergens: “State your policy on allergens, particularly nuts, as clearly as clear can be. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how dangerous these can be if ingested by someone who has a severe allergy. Think carefully whether you wish to make your restaurant entirely nut-free or include them while clearly showing which dishes contain them.”

As well as ensuring your policy and menu are clear, I explain how important it is that employees are correctly prepared: “Train your staff, empowering them with knowledge about your menu and how dishes are prepared. If they’re not able to tell the customers in great detail what each dish contains, then how will your customers make an informed decision?” As well as this, it will make them a better, well-rounded staff member who knows the menu like the back of their hand.

I think it’s important to be as transparent as possible with everything in a restaurant. Especially when it comes to allergens, which could end up being potentially fatal if ingested by someone who was ill-informed by your menu or staff.