All those restaurants who are already seriously nervous about the new 2014 allergy declarations will have been sent into a blue funk by the fate of Jamie’s Italian in Portsmouth. They have just pleaded guilty to ‘selling food not of the nature and quality demanded by the purchaser’ after they failed to serve a coeliac customer the gluten-free food that she had asked for three times. The coeliac in question has already been awarded £2,500 in a civil case.
The Jamie’s case, of course, has nothing to do with the new regulations. Their coeliac customer used the quite comprehensive provisions of the Food Safety Act, the Food Safety Regulations and the Consumer Protection Act to bring her case. However, she was on strong ground as she had asked for gluten-free food no less than three times and still not got it, so the restaurant did not really have a leg to stand on. But, when the new regulations come in next year, although they are still pretty vague – the restaurant only has to ‘provide the information’ although in what form is not specified – the onus for informing the customer will have shifted to the establishment. (For a more detailed assessment of the proposed regulations see my blog last August.)
This has already reduced many catering establishments, especially those who know little about allergy so really have no idea what they are getting into, to gibbering wrecks. Catering consultants, laboratories and groups such as Coeliac UK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign are all rushing around setting up guidelines and courses by the truckload. Indeed, we are at it ourselves and are discussing with the Food and Drink Innovation Network the possibility of adding a second ‘catering’ day to our annual ‘freefrom’ industry seminar in September.
But although, obviously, the ‘freefrom’ food that is going to be served and the contamination controls that are established in the kitchens are hugely important, the most crucial area it seems to me is the level of allergy awareness and the quality of the information that is provided by the front of house staff. No matter how wonderful your gluten or dairy free dishes or how conscientious your contamination control, if the front of house staff do not understand the requirements of your food sensitive customers and cannot give them the correct information, then you might as well not bother.
It was very much this aspect of ‘freefrom’ catering that we had in mind when we announced, at the FreeFrom Food Awards presentation two weeks ago, that we were looking at the possibility of launching a FreeFrom Restaurant Award for 2014. In the spirit of the awards, for which entrants’ products must be available by some means or other nationwide – and also because there is no other way that we could practically run it – entry would be restricted to chains with a minimum of, say, 20 outlets around the country. More to the point, judging would place heavy emphasis on allergen awareness and the provision of allergen information. Anyhow, early stages as yet, but, watch this space…. And listen up, all you restaurant chains out there!
And, of course – how could I forget?…. Because I have a horrible habit of being at least five years ahead of every game (who else would have tried to sell organic, ‘freefrom’ food into the supermarkets ten years before anyone had invented the term ‘freefrom’?….) – if you want a quick primer on how to deal with allergy in food service, all you need to do is to buy a copy of our excellent Allergy Catering Manual.
Published way back in 2005, it ‘takes you, step by step, through food allergy: what it is; how people react; the foods that cause reactions; how to deal with those reactions and prepare food that allergic customers will be able to eat; how to train your staff; where to buy ingredients and – most important – your legal position.’