Just as manufacturers embrace ‘Free From’ and ‘Vegan’ foods it seems that many in the catering industry are reacting very differently. It’s a bit of a conundrum really, as so many families are affected by dietary requirements, and any large group eating out is pretty likely to have some sort of food restriction to deal with. Just to put it into context, about 10% of the population have a food allergy (Allergy UK), about 1% of the population has Celiac Disease (Celiac UK) – overall about 40% have a dietary preference (Heather Landex https://heatherlandex.com/). That’s a lot of people. It really is part of modern life to deal with allergies and food preferences. So what’s going on?
There have been changes to the law requiring that catering outlets provide allergy information, centring on the top 14 allergens. Allergy Menus are now common, and many outlets, such as Wagamama, deal with allergies really well. They double check the order to make sure it’s safe, and confirm where cross contamination may be a concern (fryers being a real culprit for this) – which is why it’s such a popular chain with allergy sufferers. Natasha’s Law has been launched, requiring prepacked food prepared on site to have allergy information on the packaging. All good news for allergy sufferers.
However, some restaurants are demanding that allergy sufferers sign waivers, pay ‘corkage fees’ for bringing their own food when the restaurant refused to serve them, (The Piano Works, London) or even sit at separate tables (Rainforest Café’s initial response to a diner with Celiac Disease). All Allergy and Celiac Disease sufferers live with the risk of cross contamination, all restaurants deal with food safety as part of their business. So why the dramatic change recently? Why make eating out even more difficult than it already is for those with restricted diets? Management may believe that the result will mean less hassle for the restaurant (and less chance of being held accountable for someone falling ill), but it’s also less business, as the entire party is likely to rebook elsewhere.
Signing a waver doesn’t negate the responsibility of an establishment to follow Food Gov guidelines, nor will it change the response to someone having a serious allergic reaction on the premises. I think it increases the dangers, as servers and chefs may feel that the customer ‘knows the risk’. Here’s what Food Standards Agency said on Twitter:
All allergy sufferers want is sensible, clear precautions and risk assessment. If Wagamama, Nando’s and Roxie steak houses can do it, why can’t the rest? The risk, of course, is that people will stop declaring allergies to avoid the hassle. Who wants to plan a meal out with a group of friends and be told they aren’t welcome at the restaurant? Parents of young children will always be careful, adults will just take their business elsewhere. But teens and young adults are less likely to risk being embarrassed in front of their friends – so taking the risk (ordering from the menu, asking for no butter, or mayo for example) may seem a better bet. If this happens, then there’s likely to be an increase in incidents, and an increase in press coverage of allergic reactions in restaurants.
Sadly, unless the industry deals with this issue themselves, I suspect legislation will be needed, stopping catering establishments from refusing service based on allergies. It shouldn’t be necessary, but it looks increasingly like it is. Hospitality has suffered a great deal during the last two years, driving a group of customers away seems an odd road to follow.