The recent landmark case that jailed an Indian restaurant owner for his blatant disregard for the due care of a customer with a severe nut allergy, resulting in a fatality, has made the food service industry sit up and take note. The case highlights that the failing, of an operator, in not following the legal requirement can result in a catastrophic consequence for the allergic customer and the operator’s business.
Unfortunately the rise and increasing prevalence of people with severe food allergies has caught many on the back foot. Although we saw the European FIR law introduced in December 2014, which was welcomed by the growing allergic community, the law did not make every food service outlet across Europe suddenly compliant over-night. The law met lots of resistance by many food operators who simply had a lack of awareness about allergies. Much like Doctors who left medical school more than a decade ago, most food service managers and chefs, who recently left catering college, have never received any specific allergy training – so everyone is playing catch-up. Both the food industry and the NHS are facing an epidemic that requires Government action to support education.
So why have allergies become so prevalent – we just don’t know for sure. There are many theories that range from our guts becoming too clean to recent generations eating foods that their parents and grand-parents would have never consumed. There are some significant research projects underway which will bring more clarity to this over time. Until then the food industry has work to do.
I joined the Anaphylaxis Campaign, as I have a daughter with a severe allergy and importantly have experienced, over the past 12 years, what it is like to eat out with such a condition. I felt a calling to help the food industry, which has been good to me, to improve the quality of life for the allergic customer by better arming the industry to manage the issue in a pragmatic way. Having lived through an experience where you were assured the food ordered had no nuts, only to find there were peanuts in the dish, turns you into a neurotic father, with the nagging thought that the next mouth-full could possibly kill your nearest and dearest. This experience has significantly raised my awareness as a food service operator.
David Reading, one of the founders of the Anaphylaxis Campaign talks further about progress made but the challenges faced.
“Clearly the regulation does put some pressure on caterers, particularly those that have hardly given food allergy a second thought. In practice what they must do is
collect allergen ingredient information from suppliers, make sure it is recorded and have a robust system of communicating it to their customers.
Many establishments have understood this correctly and so occasionally you will see signs stating something to the effect of: “If you would like information on the allergen content of our foods, please speak to a member of staff who will be happy to assist.”
At the top end of the ‘best practice’ scale operators display files of printed ingredient information covering every dish on the menu.
One restaurant chain invites customers to use an online “menu builder” based on their dietary requirements. Customers choose their options (e.g. nut-free, fish-free, celery-free, vegetarian) from a panel of tick boxes. Suitable meal options then appear on screen.
An informal survey by staff and volunteers at the Anaphylaxis Campaign also found:
- Schools that provides printed allergen information for all meals including teas served at cricket matches
- Pub staff who have taken photos of food package labels on their phones to show to any allergic customer who asks about a particular dish
- A hotel room service menu that uses a key and different initials for allergens present in different dishes, for example F for “contains fish” and E for “contains egg”
- A leading hotel where the shift manager takes charge of the whole meal. He or she checks the hotel ingredient records, briefs the chef, brings out the food and even changes the cutlery. A chef cooks the allergic person’s meal from scratch in an ‘allergy area’ in the kitchen
All these improvements have taken place since the new regulations came into force. We would expect that gaps in knowledge still exist – for example, could all staff members name each of the 14 top allergens? Probably not. But these gaps can be addressed through training sessions – something that many managers have already set up.
Unfortunately, even with the new regulations in place many caterers still miss the mark. Our survey found that some provide no allergen information whatsoever nor do they display signage inviting people to ask questions. Some establishments print a general disclaimer stating that any of the dishes may contain allergens. At a village hotel, an allergic customer asked about the salad dressing, the stuffing and the desserts but the staff couldn’t answer. On taking a bread roll from a help-yourself trolley, the customer found small pieces of nut. The staff admitted it was walnut bread but there had been no indication of this.
An undercover investigation into takeaways by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found an even bleaker picture. Over two thirds failed to provide legally required information on how customers could find out if the 14 major allergens were in their food. Over half were unable to state whether their food contained an allergen. Record-keeping was poor in many of the outlets.”
Barry then adds, “The protest letter to the media signed by 100 top chefs and restaurateurs has had at least one positive result for the Campaign. It provided the charity with the impetus to set up a panel of food industry experts who will help us determine how to shape and evolve an awareness programme to achieve further education and awareness.
Given my own personal experience and my role in championing, at board level, a progressive and proactive approach to allergen management at Gather & Gather, it was an honour to be asked to chair the corporate food panel which has a membership that span food production, retail, restaurant, research and industry bodies . Although still in our first year we have formed a tight bond and commitment to help the industry and are currently working on a ‘hard hitting’ Campaign to raise awareness. We plan to make a positive impact.”
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