Please note this blog was written prior to the tragic incident of a fatal allergy incident, covered widely in the media. In light of that incident, UKH felt it important to proceed in posting this blog, to help raise awareness of the issues around the confusion that can occur with allergy labelling.
Allergies are on the rise in the UK according to a report by Foods Matter, ‘a staggering 44% of British adults now suffer from at least one allergy and the number of sufferers is on the rise, growing by around 2 million between 2008 and 2009 alone’. Whatever the reason may be, allergens are on the menu.
Food and drinks establishments will have collated their allergen information to give to guests who need to know. However, whilst businesses understand the legal requirements of allergy labelling, the average Joe may not. For example, current food labelling regulations allow businesses which produce food on site to provide reduced labelling even of wrapped foods, which is very different to factory-made products. Crucially the list of ingredients on these food items may not be given, unlike a pre-packed product which would have allergens highlighted. Absence of allergens on a food label could potentially lead to customers making assumptions that there are no allergens in the food. Furthermore, they may not be encouraged to ask about allergens because they may mistakenly believe there are none.
In allergy world, the most vulnerable groups are young adults. When allergic children grow up and leave home, that is when they are at their most vulnerable too. It is possible to assume that all their lives, they have been protected by parents who have made sure they don’t get exposed to a potentially fatal allergen; when they go to school, the school dinner servers know all about them – there is even a picture of them behind the counter. When they go out to eat, their parents ask the embarrassing question about what is in the food. Their friends are aware – it’s been part of life.
Then, off they go to University, meet new friends, and they are on their own with their allergy. Perhaps they are sick of being the allergic person in the group. Rather than risk being the odd one out, they try to navigate the menu without asking, hoping for the best. Rather than take their adrenaline pen in a handbag or pocket which is just not cool, they go out with just their mobile and £20 tucked behind the case. They also may not have told their new friends about their condition because that is also not cool.
Easy to ask
This is the time of year when young allergic adults are most vulnerable and the Food Standards Agency “#Easytoask” campaign is raising awareness of the need for allergic people to ask food servers about allergens and not take unnecessary risk. But how can the hospitality industry play its part?
Where you have the opportunity always ask in a nice friendly way – does anyone here have any foods they need to avoid? Open a two-way dialogue and get them talking. Some people are allergic to foods other than those on the legal list of 14. That’s why talking is so important - it could save lives.
If you serve wrapped foods, for example in a canteen cold display, consider that your customers may not be aware of the difference between your sandwich and one from a major retailer and could be expecting to see full allergen information on that pack. A line inviting people to ask about allergens on the packaging could help to prevent confusion.
If in doubt always refer to your allergen documentation, make this information available to customers or consider having an allergy champion on site at all times.