I USED to think people with food allergies were just being faddy and attention-seeking.
Maybe it serves me right that over the past couple of years I’ve developed a reaction that now prevents me from eating some of my favourite foods. The first time it happened was a horrible shock: my lips swelled, I struggled to breathe and had a terrible sense of doom – all common symptoms of anaphylaxis. This is something that’s starting to happen to more and more people, sometimes with fatal effect.
Eighteen-year-old Owen Carey died from anaphylactic shock after eating a burger. He had a dairy allergy and had informed the waiter so thought the burger was safe to eat, but it had been marinaded in buttermilk. His family are calling for a change in the law so all restaurants and eating places have to fully label menu items.
This follows “Natasha’s law”, after 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died from eating a Pret-a-Manger sandwich that contained sesame seeds. Full labelling on pre-packaged food is now demanded by law.
Anaphylaxis can occur within minutes of eating, necessitating immediate treatment with an adrenalin injection. Food allergies are on the increase, affecting around seven per cent of children in the UK. There are 14 major food allergens that now need to be mentioned when used as ingredients in a food product or meal. However, many people have additional allergens not listed in the ‘official’ list so they struggle when ingredients are not clearly communicated.
I work with a lot of food and drink businesses so am very aware of the challenges they face. They operate in a challenging and competitive environment. Chefs are constantly under cost and time pressure. They have to keep up with fast-changing trends, be ever more creative.
Imagine the chef/owner of a small restaurant happily taking delivery of some incredible fresh produce, the first of the season. They hastily adapt the menu for that day’s service, hoping to satisfy diner’s clamours for seasonal, local, healthy. There’s no time to train waiting staff about every ingredient. In any case, not all of them speak perfect English, and staff turnover can be high. The chef is doing their best under difficult conditions. There’s a statement on the menu that asks diners to make staff aware of any allergies – surely that’s sufficient? There have been huge leaps forward in recognition of the dangers of allergic reactions to food. Many restaurant owners feel they’re doing more than enough.
I do understand their view but my own experiences have changed my perspective. A close family member has had multiple food allergies from infancy, some common, some unusual. Meals out together can sometimes feel like Russian Roulette. We have to place our trust in good communications between waiting staff and kitchen.
There’s heightened awareness of the severity of this condition when you’ve travelled in an ambulance, sirens screaming, blue lights flashing while someone close to you lies motionless, monitors showing their blood pressure dropping dangerously low, doctor refusing to look you in the eye, crash team ready at the hospital.
My heart is pounding as I recount this flashback to a time when a waiter didn’t correctly pass on information or where a chef was too busy to take notice. I still feel the sense of desperation, praying we’d arrive at the hospital in time to save a loved one. We were lucky. Not everyone is. It is a nuisance to have to list ingredients, but it could save lives.
The chief executive of the trade body, UKHospitality, is reported to have said that a law change could have a serious impact on the viability of restaurants and lead to yet more high street casualties. Restaurant industry campaigners are understandably nervous about any changes in law.
But what of the damage to business caused by a fatality? The reputational damage? Or the trauma experienced by staff who’ve seen someone’s potentially fatal reaction, immediately after they’ve handed them a plate of food?
People with allergies will avoid places with a tainted reputation. They also become fierce supporters of reliable restaurants. Every now and then, we’ll find a restaurant that is particularly good at handling food allergies. It’s usually a place which offers plenty of information, that’s honest about what they can and can’t do, and that might offer to make some moderate changes to the menu. When that happens we’re loyal, happy to return, to recommend to others, and review with fulsome praise on sites like TripAdvisor. We tend to eat at less busy times, when we know it’s easier to communicate clearly with the kitchen.
There’s a business case for restaurants improving their ingredient information, as well as a human one. It could save lives.
Susan Briggs is director of The Tourism Network which is based in Masham.