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Victoria's Allergen Diary Part 4: The Relationship between Caterers and Consumers

Welcome to The Allergen Diaries, in which we explore first-hand the challenges and problems faced by severe allergy sufferers as consumers in the foodservice industry.

By now you’ve probably met our new columnist, Erudus’s very own Victoria McEwan. Victoria suffers from a number of serious allergies, as well as some of the health issues commonly associated with them, and in her previous posts she covered the basics of living with multiple allergies, moving away from home as an allergy sufferer and how her allergies affect both people like her and those who work in the hospitality industry.

This time she’s exploring the relationship between allergy sufferers and Caterers and how they can both help one another

There are two sides of the coin when dealing with allergies - the allergen sufferer who it will ultimately impact and the establishments trying to cater for those with allergies. Though the first is risking death, the second is also very difficult - knowing that someone’s life is in your hands. The relationship between the two sides can be a tumultuous one, with some chefs catering fantastically to sufferers and other establishments refusing to accept special requests and allergy requirements.

Grant Achatz, Chef and Proprietor of World renowned restaurant Alinea (in Chicago, USA) recently updated his policy on dietary restrictions, where requirements such as pescetarian and vegetarian meals must be confirmed 3 days in advance. More significantly, any allergy that can be triggered by cross-contamination is not accommodated. He said ‘I feel a huge obligation to please, and I find the challenge of coming up with these adjusted menus compelling, but enough is enough.’

It’s true that allergens are on the rise, and this does create a challenge for Caterers. It’s now not just the 14 major food allergens, but other emerging common allergens too. I empathise with these Caterers, because it must be scary doing your job knowing something potentially fatal might happen to one of your customers, and I understand the easy option is to stop accommodating those with requests. However, refusal to accept allergen requests does not get rid of allergies and the problems associated with them.

Certain attitudes towards allergies border on extreme. Channel 4’s recent series of Food Unwrapped Investigates put a spotlight on allergies and the struggles faced by those living with them. During the first episode an ‘anonymous’ chef didn’t shy away from sharing his controversial opinions on allergies. Here’s what he had to say:

‘Allergies are a huge problem that we’ve created ourselves and it’s only going to get worse. I think we’ve become slightly weak and precious about it. If you’ve got an allergy, isn’t it up to you to manage it rather than everyone else to manage it? Allergens are quite trendy at the moment, and quite newsworthy and we have to change the law for the 99.9% of the population that aren’t allergy sufferers for the 0.1%.’

As a sufferer, hearing that isn’t nice - something that can potentially kill you isn’t ‘trendy’ and it’s certainly not something I choose or enjoy having! Cornell University found that whilst on ‘mindless autopilot’ we make around 221 food related decisions everyday*, but we allergy sufferers have to think about and then manage every decision we make about food - from reading ingredient lists to researching and asking for help to find out what is in our food.

Over 2 million people living in the UK suffer from a food allergy.* Changing the law for allergy sufferers doesn’t affect the way that those without allergies choose their food, it just means that those with allergies have transparency and can enjoy eating out without worrying that they’re going to die.

The anonymous chef said allergy sufferers aren’t asking for transparency ‘they’re saying can you change the menu’. I personally don’t think I’ve ever asked someone to change their menu, I’ve merely asked what I can and can’t eat so I can make an informed decision. However it seems that many Caterers still don’t take allergies too seriously, proven by headlines such as that in The Caterer where more than half of allergy sufferers had reactions triggered by ‘safe’ restaurant food after being dismissed as fussy eaters.*

Hearing stuff like this does make wonder, are allergy sufferers asking for too much? In Food Unwrapped Investigates we saw the contrasting view of Dominic Teague from One Aldwych who goes to great lengths to create a garlic-free sauce for someone with a garlic allergy (which takes more time and costs more). Dominic empathetically told Kate Quilton ‘We have to take it seriously, people can die if we get it wrong.’

Being an allergy sufferer, putting myself in the shoes of someone whose livelihood is to create delicious food and who must then change certain elements to adapt to new laws and regulations, I can understand the frustration. But the disparities between chefs shows that there are people out there proving that whilst it requires adaptation and changes, catering to those with allergies can be done.

The anonymous chef is right when he says we are liable for ourselves, but it should be a team effort. If both sides care then that’s great. We can help each other. With clear communication about allergies and intolerances, and in-depth education for food businesses, navigating allergies could be easier for both sides.

So, what exactly can we all do to help each other?

What Caterers Can Do

In The Caterer, Dr Boyle of Imperial College London talked about the importance of Caterers putting themselves in the shoes of allergy sufferers, and to get into the mindset of someone who’s had an unpleasant experience and is anxious about what they’re putting in their mouth - as well as the benefit of Caterers asking customers about allergens and having clear signposting and labelling.*

Open up the conversation

If not already notified of allergies, be sure to immediately remind customers and give them the opportunity to discuss requirements. That way you’ll have time to organise ingredients and prepare to cater to that specific customer. Consider writing an ‘Any Allergies? Ask Us’ statement on your menus and/or website to let customers know you're open to helping them. Industry Resources?

Educate your staff

Make sure you educate and train all your staff on the seriousness of food allergies and the importance of cross contamination. The more people who understand allergies, what they are and what can happen when severe allergic reactions occur, the easier it is to communicate and cater for those with allergies.

Let technology be your friend

Erudus offers powerful solutions that help you to comply with food legislation and keep your customers safe. Their Recipe Builder tool automatically aggregates nutritional values, costs and allergy statements for all the dishes on your menu. The perfect reference for your customers and staff.

What allergy sufferers can do

Prevention is better than cure, so (aside from remembering your AAI and antihistamines of course) follow these tips to feel prepared and safe when choosing somewhere to eat...

Inform the restaurant when you book (and beyond that)

Notify the restaurant of your allergies well in advance, so they can plan to cater for you, but don’t forget to state your allergies every single time you order your food. It can only take one oversight for something fatal to happen - I once ordered food from a Chinese restaurant that I regularly ate from, and presumed it would be fine. I ended up having an allergic reaction. Don’t ever just assume that your food is going to be ok, always check!

Choose Wisely

Choose a restaurant with clear allergy accommodations - such as symbols on the menu or an ‘Ask about allergies statement’. This shows that they’ll be willing to have a conversation and cater for you.

Avoid Certain Foods and Cuisines

Avoid restaurants where your allergen is likely to be highly present (nuts in an Indian restaurant for example). If you think there’s going to be a risk of cross-contamination you should avoid eating there unless you feel completely comfortable that the restaurant will look after you.

And lastly...

As an allergy sufferer, and a consumer who wants to know exactly what is in the food they’re eating, learning about Erudus, and knowing that so many Manufacturers and Wholesalers use it to communicate important allergen and nutritional information to Caterers really puts me at ease and gives me peace of mind. It means they’re able to tell me exactly what allergens are (and could be) present in my food. It is exactly what foodservice needs - having industry-wide access to an instant, single source of data truth can prevent so many fatal incidents and gives the consumer at the end of the chain options, and the power and knowledge to make sensible decisions.”





Next time on Victoria’s Allergy Diaries: Victoria discusses travelling with multiple allergies.

Catch up on the first series of The Insider Diaries – Beth’s Allergy Blog, here.

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The 14 Allergens List