The allergen epidemic

With research underway into the causes behind the increasing number of people affected by severe allergies, Anaphylaxis Campaign are leading the way in providing better allergen education for the foodservice industry

The recent landmark case that saw an Indian restaurant owner jailed for his blatant disregard for the due care of a customer with a severe nut allergy, resulting in a fatality, has made the foodservice industry sit up and take note. The case highlights that the failing of not following legal requirements can result in a catastrophic consequence for the allergic customer and the operator.

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 foodservice outlet across Europe suddenly compliant overnight. The law met resistance from many food operators who simply had a lack of allergen awareness. Much like doctors who left medical school more than a decade ago, most chefs and foodservice managers 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 requiring Government action to support education.

So why exactly have allergies become so prevalent? We just don’t know for sure. There are many theories ranging from our guts becoming too clean to recent generations eating foods that their parents and grandparents would have never consumed. There are some significant research projects underway that will bring more clarity to this over time. Until then the food industry has work to do.

I joined the Anaphylaxis Campaign because I have a daughter with a severe allergy and over the past 12 years have experienced 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 that the food ordered had no nuts in it, only to then find there were actually peanuts in the dish, can quickly turn you into a neurotic father with the nagging thought that the next mouthful could possibly kill your nearest and dearest. This experience significantly raised my awareness as a foodservice operator.

David Reading, the founder of the Anaphylaxis Campaign, says, “Clearly the regulation puts some pressure on caterers, particularly those that have hardly given food allergy a second thought. In practise, 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 and occasionally you will see signs stating something to the effect of: ‘If you would like information on the allergen content of our food, please ask 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,” he adds. “One restaurant chain invites customers to use an online ‘menu builder’ based on their dietary requirements. Customers choose their options (eg. 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 provide 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, eg 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 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,” David says. “We would expect that gaps in knowledge still exist – for example, can all staff members name each of the 14 top allergens? Probably not. But these gaps can be addressed through training sessions – an aspect that many managers have already set up. Unfortunately, even with the new regulations in place many caterers still miss the mark,” he adds. “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, stuffing and desserts, but the staff couldn’t answer. Taking a bread roll from a help- yourself trolley, they found small pieces of nut – 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 any of the 14 major allergens were in their food, and over half were unable to state whether their food contained an allergen. Record-keeping was poor in many of the outlets.”

Last year’s letter signed by 100 top chefs and restaurateurs protesting at the ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ of the new EU regulations had at least one positive result for the Anaphylaxis Campaign – it provided the charity with the impetus to set up a panel of food industry experts to help determine how to shape and evolve a programme to achieve further education and awareness.

Given my personal experience and my role in championing a progressive and proactive approach to allergen management at board level of Gather & Gather, it was an honour to be asked to chair the corporate food panel, which has a membership that spans 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.

 

 

“Our survey found that some provide no allergen information whatsoever, nor do they display signage inviting people to ask questions”