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Solving the allergy conundrum: Are food businesses responsible?

Posted: 22 April 2024 | | No comments yet

Sparking discussion during Allergy Awareness Week, Liljia Polo-Richards considers how food businesses can effectively support those living with food hypersensitivity.

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By Liljia Polo-Richards, Founder and Director of Allergy Companions

Over the last two years, I have had the opportunity to speak with many hospitality businesses, allergic consumers and industry experts, and I have learned to appreciate perspectives and points of view that do not always naturally match and come together.

As we know, the last decade has unfortunately been marked by a number of allergy fatalities and serious incidents. These have heightened individuals’ awareness of their potential vulnerability when dining out with allergies. Businesses have, in turn, responded to these events by implementing allergen protocols that would help protect them.

It is fair to say that allergies are being talked about more and more in the mainstream media, which can only be a good thing. The more the topic is discussed, the more awareness people might have of these conditions.

However, in my opinion there is still much more to be achieved both in the consumers space and in terms of what businesses can do and offer.

Issues on the consumer side

Whilst it is easy, when things turn sour, to always blame businesses for getting things wrong, it is important to have perspective.

With the number of people being formally diagnosed with a food allergy, or believing they are affected by this condition, it is no surprise that there has been a 154 percent rise in hospital admissions for anaphylaxis between 2002 and 2022. 

According to Allergy UK, it is estimated that between 1-10 percent of adults and children have a food hypersensitivity, with an many as 20 percent of the population believing they have a food hypersensitivity because they have reacted to food.

Episode 43: Living with food allergies – Part Three

Many patients have not had the opportunity to receive a diagnosis, as “the provision of allergy services within the NHS continues to erode”. For those that are able to afford it, or are offered private medical care through their employers, a private consultation with an allergist is the only option.

To complicate matters, individuals might have previously received an incorrect diagnosis and care plan, which left them without appropriate medication in case of emergency and an insufficient understanding of the severity of their condition, as many have been diagnosed with a “mild allergy”.

Life after diagnosis does not come with a manual, and the way hypersensitive individuals manage and communicate their allergies is extremely personal and down to the level of additional research that person (or their carer, in case of children) has conducted.

 

Implications in practice

As allergy care, allergy diagnosis and allergy knowledge can vary so greatly from one individual to the next, their understanding of the importance of communicating their dietary needs to restaurants and other food venues will also depend on their own personal journey.

Some allergic diners understand the importance of having a dialogue about their allergies when eating out, and ensuring that staff understand their needs when placing an order. They understand that by communicating this information to a manager or waiting staff, they can ensure that an allergen protocol is followed and their food would be prepared with the necessary care.

Others do not understand that food venues have processes and procedures in place for allergy orders, and therefore believe that as long as dishes containing their allergens are avoided, their food will be ok for them to consume.

The trouble with this approach is that consumers do not appreciate the high risk of cross-contamination for their dishes if staff are not alerted about their allergy and dietary needs.

Allergen menus only declare intentional ingredients in a dish, and through cross-contamination some dishes may no longer be suitable for someone with food allergies or coeliac disease. In this situation, diners are putting themselves at greater risk of reaction, especially when not carrying emergency medication.

This also puts restauranteurs in a very difficult position, as without knowing that a customer has an allergy, they are unable to keep them safe. The reputational damage to businesses when things go wrong can be catastrophic, irrespective of whether they did anything wrong.

So, what can be done to encourage diners to volunteer this information? And what more can be done to improve consumers’ own understanding of allergies and the importance of protecting themselves?

The role of hospitality

Through no fault of their own, restaurants and catering businesses have had to face the reality that allergies are inevitably on the rise.

If you speak to any chef or restaurant worker who operated in this industry 20-30 years ago, they would tell you that allergies were not really “a thing”.

Catering for a variety of dietary requirements, be it medical or linked to lifestyle preferences, is something that businesses need to deal with if they choose to welcome more customers through their doors.

For these venues, having robust allergen processes in place is imperative, as they need to practically demonstrate their ability to produce and serve food that is safe for their diners.

These measures are not only regulatory requirements, but crucial safeguards for customer well-being.

Without effective management of allergies, businesses face risks ranging from reputational harm to legal consequences. Thus, ongoing education and training for staff are crucial to instil confidence in handling allergy-related inquiries and maintaining safe food preparation practices.

 

What more can businesses do?

Restaurant staff, whether involved in serving customers or preparing their food in the kitchen, receive a lot of training that helps them understand the correct allergen process and the importance of following it.

However, many hospitality workers are scared to serve people with allergies as they are worried about the consequences if things were to go wrong, and so are their companies.

As a result, the focus often shifts towards managing customers’ expectations rather than proactively addressing their needs, often employing the “cannot guarantee” statement as a mechanism to convey this message.

If you translate this into your customers’ “customer experience”, you are effectively undoing all the great work your company has done in designing processes that are there to protect allergic diners.

Why? Because the majority of consumers understand the risks associated with dining out with allergies, and appreciate that there is no such thing as a guarantee.

What they are looking for is information on how their food will be prepared, who is handling their order and the processes the business has in place for allergy orders. What they are also looking for is care, understanding and empathy from restaurant staff. This is, in my view, one of the missing ingredients.

I have recently completed a project with a large hospitality group that owns a number of restaurant brands. Through the project, I sought promote a more personalised approach to allergy management Their staff were involved in delivering important messages to their colleagues, which were centred around understanding customers with allergies and appreciating that some people might feel worried and stressed when eating out.

I had managers, waiting staff and chefs talking to the camera explaining the important role they all play in keeping customers safe and making them feel welcome.

I also shared my own personal story of when a restaurant served my family food covered in nuts, and how this episode made me want to do more for my family and anyone affected by food allergies.

Explaining the reality of living with allergies, and how these affect people’s lives, provides staff with a deeper understanding of their customers, which in turn helps them offer a better service and dining experience.

Can this help solve the allergy conundrum?

As I explored earlier in this article, consumers play a huge role in keeping themselves safe, and whilst the gap in allergy care cannot be addressed immediately, raising awareness on this topic can help fill some of the gap.

More consumers need to understand the importance of declaring their allergies when dining out and carrying their emergency medication at all times.

By fostering open communication between allergic consumers and restaurant staff, we can take significant strides towards resolving part of the allergy conundrum.

Encouraging diners to declare their allergies and take them seriously, coupled with efforts from restaurant staff to promote a more positive dialogue around allergies, could help bring us closer to achieving a safer dining environment.

Whilst addressing the gap in allergy care may take time, raising this level of awareness amongst consumers and hospitality can only bring us closer to where we want to be.

 

About the author

liljia polo-richardsLiljia Polo-Richards is the Director and Founder of AllergyCompanions.com. The website launched in October 2021 as a resource to help people affected by food allergies, intolerances and coeliac disease find and review venues that cater for their requirements across the UK and Republic of Ireland. Liljia is passionate about bringing positive change to the industry and working with businesses (food manufacturers and restaurateurs) that take allergies seriously. She holds a Masters in international business from Birmingham Business School, where she graduated in 2007. Prior to that she graduated at the University of Birmingham in international studies and political science.

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