There are many thousands, if not millions of people that suffer from allergies of one form or another in this country. I’m sure that if anything that can be consumed, someone will have an allergy to it. Nut, diary, soya, wheat… the list goes on. So how come in these modern times, restaurants, especially family orientated one’s, don’t seem to accommodate particularly well for people who suffer with allergies ?
To be honest, growing up I personally had very little experience in dealing with allergies, however nowadays I do as Georgina has a diary a milk & nut allergy and her Uncle has a sever nut allergy. At home dealing with allergies is fairly straight forward. Food shopping entails a lot of ready of ingredients, which are generally well labelled to highlight what items may cause a common allergic reaction. When it comes to preparing meals, it’s a case of being aware of cross-contamination. Not using the same knife to prepare Georgina’s sandwich that has already been used to slice cheese for Conor sandwich, for example.
However such simple measures don’t seem to apply to many restaurants across our fine land. I’ve lost count how many times we’ve had to go to multiple restaurants searching for somewhere suitable to eat because either the lack of nutritional information, meals that have been made with milk; or it’s variants, or ingredients that have been cooked in the same oil as ingredients that contain milk causing cross-contamination. Because of this Georgina would have to have the same meals over and over again, so it’s not surprising that she gets fed up with eating countless plates of Ham, Egg & Chips as is the normal ‘safe’ choice the restaurant can put together.
Now I’m not saying all restaurants are allergy unfriendly, that would be unfair as I haven’t been to them all of course. There are some which openly display the nutritional information of meals, for example at Haven Holiday Parks which have an A3 poster displaying such information, Pizza Hut who will happily give you the data sheets detailing what each meal has, even Debenhams in-store restaurant have easily accessible information. There are some that have this information on their website, which is very good, but when you’re out and about and decide to eat out rather than go home and cook, unless you have a laptop or smart phone with you, that doesn’t really help. The other main frustration when we do find somewhere and you ask if a particular ingredient contains milk or not is that they simply don’t know. This is because some restaurants buy in bulk things like sausages, chicken nuggets; you know, the sort of thing kids like to eat, and rather than keep the ingredients label from the packaging they simply empty the contents into a unlabelled container ready for cooking later.
There are a number of things I’d like to see happen to make the lives of allergy suffers easier when eating out. One is that all restaurants should keep the ingredients list of their foodstuffs available for consumers to see. This can either be a data sheet that a number of restaurants already have, or simply keeping the ingredients labels from the boxes the food comes from. That way the consumer can ensure the food doesn’t contain the offending ingredient, because not all restaurants realise the some allergens go by different names or have variants. For example when checking for someone with a milk allergy we need to check for milk (obviously!), lactose, whey, cheese, butter, etc…
Another thing I would like to see happen is that all restaurants share the nutritional information of all their meals to some kind of central database, run by an independent food authority, i.e the Food Standards Agency. This would include ingredients they’ve put into the meals from scratch themselves or the ingredients from the sausage packaging they would normally throw away. Now you may thinking “He said earlier …unless you have a laptop or smart phone with you, that doesn’t really help…” By compiling the information in this way would allow restaurants to have a record of what ingredients their food has that they can call upon, rather than not knowing at all. Also having this information accessible to others, like iPhone, Android, Smart phone app developers, would allow for location based apps to be created to utilise this information. For example an app could see where you are, you then select what allergy(s) you have and let the app highlight which restaurants are suitable for you, even map a route to the restaurant as well. Even websites could use the information if you do plan to eat out as you could check which restaurants are suitable in the area that you’re visiting.
It’s not just restaurants that need to be allergy friendly, it also needs to apply to all food vendors including cafés, burger vans, ice cream stalls, etc. Whilst I appreciate these vendors would find it harder to submit nutrition information to an authority, due to their nomadic nature, they can at least have the information to hand when asked for by the consumer.
The food industry also need to be aware that consumers don’t know about industry terms. One example of this is the Coney Island ice cream stalls in Central Milton Keynes. At one point they were advertising a product as ‘Dairy Free’. So excitedly for the first time Georgina was able to buy an ice cream from a stall rather than the usual ice lolly, or so we thought. After about 5 minutes of eating the ‘Dairy Free’ ice cream she was showing signs of having an allergic reaction. At first we thought it couldn’t be the ice cream, it’s ‘Dairy Free’! It must have been the sprinkles she had on it which may have been cross-contaminated with a non-dairy ice cream, we thought. Long story short, Treena rushed her to the hospital as the reaction wasn’t going away even after medication, where she was kept in overnight after going into anaphylactic shock. When Treena & I went back to the stall to report the incident and to highlight the possible sprinkles contamination, we were shocked to discover that apparently “in the ice cream world, dairy free means low fat or reduced milk content, but still contains milk”. Unfortunately for us we didn’t know this term as we live in the real world where ‘Dairy Free’ means just that, no dairy in the ingredients. After a couple of calls to the relevant authorities, Coney Island swiftly changed their signage to remove the term ‘Dairy Free’. To me this highlights the need to the food industry to be aware that allergies are out there and that the consumer needs to know when ingredients are in the food they want to eat.
So, all of you out there that work with food, realise the need for information and provide it to us, the consumers, please!
This blog is me having a rant and I’ve not heavily researched as I probably should, but let me know your thoughts on the subject or how off the mark you think I may be ?
Thanks for reading,