The recent tragic death of a teenager following an allergic reaction to Sesame, which was an ingredient in a sandwich she had consumed has brought once again the issue of allergens in the hospitality industry to the forefront.
Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, went into cardiac arrest on a flight to Nice after buying a baguette from sandwich chain Pret at Heathrow Airport in 2016, and had a severe allergic reaction halfway through the British Airways flight to sesame seeds contained in the sandwich, before dying later the same day.
It was later revealed that the packaging on the sandwich did not contain a list of all the ingredients and allergens that the product contained, and Ms Ednan-Laperouse was found in a coroner’s inquest to have died from anaphylactic shock.
Currently, the Food Standards Agency states that any food products that contain the 14 main ingredients likely to cause an allergic reaction must be labelled as such.
These allergenic ingredients include: celery; cereals that contain gluten; crustaceans; eggs; fish; lupin; milk; molluscs; mustard; tree nuts; peanuts; sesame seeds; soybeans; sulphur dioxide and sulphites, and manufacturers must make it clear whether food or drink products contain any of these allergens, whether they’ve been pre-packed or not.
However, and this is the point where calls are being made to strengthen the law, according to EU law, this can be done in “written or oral formats”, meaning that customers may be required to ask whether food contains allergens when it’s not stated on the labelling.
This tragic event is a stark reminder to the hospitality industry particularly following a recent study conducted by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which exposed that a high percentage of young people aged between 16-24 with food allergies fear eating out at restaurants and in some cases, have specifically avoided going out to eat.
The study showed a staggering 64% of food allergy sufferers had avoided going out in the last 6 months. These results could be down to the lack of faith allergen sufferers have in restaurants and menu options, or it could be that they’re comfortable with a certain restaurant and do not wish to ‘create a scene’ at a new establishment.
The food industry has worked to give greater transparency on nutritional and allergen information across the last 5 years, after the European Commission introduced the ‘Food Information To Consumers’ legislation in 2014. This legislation made it compulsory to detail nutritional and allergen information on food packaging and non-prepacked food, including in restaurants and cafes.
Responses to the survey detailed that a high percentage of allergen sufferers were aware that it was a legal right for businesses to openly show ingredient information on the top 14 allergens.
Understandably, when it’s a literal matter of life and death, sufferers may be cautious when trying new restaurants and dishes. Customers want to feel confident when ordering food and have an enjoyable and relaxing time when out.
ELAS Food Safety Director, Fiona Sinclair, illustrates the hard work that the majority of food businesses have undergone to help allergy sufferers:
“On one hand it is the case that the food industry overall provides more allergen information and has better controls in place than ever before. With the introduction of the Food Information for Consumers Regulations in 2014, many businesses have now got robust procedures in place to comply with the law and keep customers with allergies safe. For example, accurate information on allergens for each menu item, signage encouraging customers to tell them about their allergies, allergen buttons on tills, allergen awareness training for staff and managers and tight communication if a customer has an allergy.
On the other hand, from our experience too many businesses still don’t have safeguards in place, some virtually none, and in such cases consumers are right to exercise cautions. We find this to be more common with smaller businesses who may still be unaware of requirements. For consumers with serious allergies their life is virtually in the hands of a chef or waiter.
There are a few suggestions we would suggest for consumers with allergies, to help them assess whether the place they wish to eat out can be trusted. For example, check their food hygiene rating although this is a quite basic measure and not the be all and end all. Asking for allergen information, if it is not provided up front is a must, and gauging how the staff respond. Don’t be afraid to ask them what precautions they will take with your meal. Your’re much more likely to get a clear and forthcoming answer from a premises with safe and clear allergen procedures, well trained staff and effective management in place.
Earlier this year food safety experts STS hosted a Food Safety Round Table Event at Browns Courtrooms, Covent Garden, with an expert panel made up of key industry figures with a depth of knowledge and experience in the fields of hospitality and supply chain. With Brexit looming on the horizon and high-profile food safety concerns regularly in the headlines, it was felt that that a united voice is needed from within the food industry to help shape the future of food safety in the UK.
Mike Williams, Director of STS, says: “There are many great brands in the hospitality sector, yet all too often there is little sharing of great practice to help improve food safety standards across all UK businesses. At STS we believe in leading from the front. The white paper we have issued looks at the challenges that allergens present to food businesses and consumers, as well as the steps that need to be taken to ensure that focus on allergens does not drop off the agenda.
“There has been a steady increase in the number of allergen sufferers in the UK, and careful control of allergenic ingredients is essential. Many controls are simple but it’s important that food businesses maintain focus and care at all times. This white paper looks at the common difficulties experienced across the industry and provides best practice advice, using the expertise of the STS food safety panel.
“This is the first of three white papers which will be published free of charge, by way of giving something back to an industry that is worth over £73bn per annum to the UK economy. STS is proud to be working alongside food safety experts from across the hospitality industry in putting together these white papers and would like to acknowledge our gratitude to them.”
To download a copy of the white paper, visit www.sts-solutions.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/White-Paper-Allergens-V3.pdf