I have spent then past few days reading the reports from our ‘secret diner’ judges who have been out and about testing the eateries shortlisted for the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards – and two things have really stood out from their reports. How hard most of those offering freefrom menus try – and how difficult it is in a busy restaurant situation to absolutely ensure that the allergen free food they offer really is 100% allergen free.
The legislation – a no brainer…
In some ways the 2014 legislation is a no brainer. It requires that all purveyors of food sold loose and in catered situations to know which of the 14 major allergens are in any of the dishes that they serve. How hard is that, for goodness sake! Does a chef not know what is in the dish that he or she is cooking? But of course it is not as simple as that.
The practice – not so easy
Not all eateries cook everything themselves – some buy in most of what they serve, many buy in part of what they serve. How clearly are the ingredients of what they buy marked on the packs? And, unless you understand about allergy and coeliac disease, why would you think of checking a soya sauce or a mustard for gluten? How many people who are not coeliacs realise that a malt vinegar is made from barley which is a hazard for coeliacs?
Secondly – how can the vast majority of the people who work in food service, the majority of whom do not have English as their mother tongue, understand the complexities of allergy? Even when you are familiar with it, it is very complex subject. Within the allergic community itself, how scarily often is ‘lactose free’ mistaken for ‘milk free’? How often are ‘nuts’ confused peanuts and how many do not realise that you can be allergic to either nuts or peanuts or both?
And finally – and probably hardest of all to control – busy kitchens at the height of ‘service’ are manic places. Just remember a few of those episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares or Hell’s Kitchen – that genuinely is what happens in busy kitchen. How easy, in the rush to fufill teeming orders, to grab the serving spoon that has just been used for the gluten containing pie to serve the gluten free pie – or to pick up the vegetables with the butter on them instead of the vegetables with the oil.
Systems cannot be infallible
Of course you can devise systems which will accommodate most of these hazards – and there are some amazing systems out there to do just that. But although mistakes should not happen, no matter how hard everyone tries, and no matter how good their intentions, everyone is human and occasionally they do.
When mistakes do happen, it is totally horrible for the allergic or coeliac person who has been ‘allergised’ or ‘glutened’. In the very worst, although mercifully very rare scenarios, it can be fatal. But even when it is not fatal, it can make the sufferer very ill for anything from a few hours to several weeks. But, it is also genuinely horrible for the establishment in which the mistake occurred.
Of course, there are cases where the eaterie has just been negiligent or even fraudulent – as in the case Mohammad Zaman, the Indian restaurant owner who had substituted peanuts for almonds in his take away’s food because they were cheaper, as a result of which a peanut-allergic customer died.
But in those case where the eaterie is really doing its best to serve tasty but safe freefrom food, there will have been a genuine human error. Right – errors should not happen but it is unrealistic (and dangerous) to assume that, even in the best managed establishments, with the most watertight protcols and systems, they never will.
And if they do, what happens to that establishment, or that chef, or server? For a start, if they have been really doing their best to serve safe food, they are going to feel terrible. They really care about the allergic people they are serving and the last thing they want to do is to harm them. This may sound trite but I heard last week of one small restaurant where a waitress did not sleep for nights and made herself quite ill because she had mistakenly served butter to a ‘dairy free’ table – even though she had corrected the mistake before any harm had been done.
But what if someone does actually have a reaction? Depending on the size and style of establishment, the person responsible will probably lose their job. Because their reference may refer to the incident, they may have difficulty in getting another one. If the person who had suffered the reaction chose to talk about the incident on social media – that could seriously affect that business – even, if it was small and the social media coverage was wide enough, put them out of business.
So, before anyone accuses me of not caring about the welfare of allergic people….. what am I saying here?
I am saying that catering safely for allergic and coeliac people in a busy restaurant environment is not easy. In fact is it very difficult. And yes, there is a new market out there for caterers who have a good freefrom offer, but it is a market fraught with hazards.
It can be done safely. But doing it safely requires a major input in terms of learning, systems, discipline and commitment on the part of the establishment concerned.
So, the allergic community need to help them
Allergic and coeliac customers can make significantly positive contribution to that process by talking to the eateries concerned, understanding the hazards that catering for them involves, appreciating the efforts made on their behalf. Most important of all, while never condoning mistakes that are made, especially if they are unnecessary or stupid mistakes, they need to actively engage with the establishment to ensure that their systems are improved and that such mistakes will not happen again.
That way, hopefully, everyone can move forward together towards a situation where it really is possible for allergic and coeliac people to eat out safely all of the time.