A short piece in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser headlined ‘Allergen law ‘fatal for pub specials board’ has put its finger on one of the trickiest challenges faced by the new allergen regulations for ‘food sold loose and in food service’.
Waitrose Good Food Guide editor, Elizabeth Carter will not have won herself any friends in the allergy world with her closing remarks:
‘I have sympathy for people with allergies but it is about common sense. I just can’t understand why anyone with a life threatening allergy would play Russian roulette in a restaurant’. But she is right when she points out that chefs in pubs (and in small restaurants) are really going to struggle with the requirement to always have full details of any of the 14 major allergens that could appear in their food available for their customers.
It is relatively easy for large chains of restaurants or cafés – MacDonalds, Burger King, Harvester, Pizza Express, Strada etc etc – with fixed menus which only get changed every few months, to have an accurate handle on what goes into each of their dishes, to instruct their staff about allergens, to ensure that accurate information is available to allergic customers and to set up their systems in such a way as to minimise the chance of accidental allergen contamination. However, for smaller outlets, including pubs who offer daily or weekly ‘specials’ it is a very different matter. (The pictures is of the ‘Specials’ Board from Tanroagan Seafood Restaurant in Douglas, IOM)
As Antony Worral Thompson pointed out when we launched the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards at the FDIN conference in September, chefs just do not work to fixed recipes. They add a bit of this today, and a bit of that tomorrow – that is why they chose to be chefs, so that they could be inventive. And that is why people go to pubs and chose off the ever-changing ‘specials board’ – because they want something ‘a bit different’. What is more the vast majority of those chefs, and I mean vast, understand very little of allergy beyond the fact that a peanut allergy can kill you. And that is before you consider the environment in which they work – usually quite small and extremely busy kitchens, subject to regular manic rushes during busy periods and staffed mainly by people who have a very poor grasp of English, let alone the complexities of allergy or allergenic contamination.
This is not to say that they should not try. With the growing incidence of food allergy, food intolerance and coeliac disease, I think that everyone should know a few basic facts about the conditions, if only so that they have some understanding of what problems their allergic/intolerant friends or family face when trying to feed themselves. I also certainly believe that basic allergen training should be an absolute requirement for anyone working the food industry in no matter how lowly a position and that every establishment serving food should be able to answer questions about the potential allergenicity of their food.
However, there is a yawning gap between having a basic understanding of food allergy and being able to offer allergic customers meals that they will be able to eat in the confident knowledge that the food will not contain any of their allergens and they will not have a reaction. Not that this is what the new regulations are requiring. Realistically, the regulators know that there is a massive educational job to be done here and that the best that they can hope for is that food service outlets manage to learn enough about allergenic ingredients to be able to pass on accurate information to their customers.
But, while allergic, intolerant and ‘freefrom’ customers will be glad to be provided with accurate information about any potential allergens in the food, they would like much more. They would like to be able to go out to a meal with their family/friends and be offered a reasonable (not massive) selection of tasty dishes that they can eat without being in constant fear of a reaction. And why wouldn’t they?
The problem is that for small outlets which do not have a fixed menu, unless they are going to go totally ‘freefrom’ and not allow any of the common allergens (wheat/gluten/dairy/nuts/eggs as a minimum) onto their premises, it is always going to to be a struggle to remain ‘on top’ of the allergen situation, especially in terms of contamination. And while one can absolutely understand and sympathise with the longing of allergics, coeliacs and those on a freefrom diets to just be able to go out and eat more or less like anyone else, it would also be a great shame if, as Elizabeth Carter is suggesting, the requirement to comply with the regulations were to stifle creativity and invention in the kitchen.
There will, of course, be some establishments (such as the fast food chain Leon, or Pizza Express) who will get it absolutely right – and hopefully, as the concept of ‘freefrom’ eating out becomes more familiar, the number of these will gow. But there will also always remain a significant number of independent food outlets (don’t forget that the majority of food outlets in the UK are not part of large chains but small independents) who will continue to struggle with the concept and the delivery of truly freefrom food.
My feeling is that this presents a massive opportunity to freefrom manufacturers who can offer these outlets ready made and attractively packed freefrom dishes with a long shelf life (frozen or ambient) – be they gluten free rolls, dairy free desserts, or ‘freefrom’ main dishes. However they need to be packed so that they can be served to their ‘freefrom’ customers in their wrappings thereby not only side stepping all of the knowledge and contamination issues in the outlets, kitchen or front of house, but giving the customer confidence that the dish is what it says it is and has not been accidentally contaminated. There are a few manufacturers who are already moving in this direction – some of the excellent freefrom pie makers for example, or the new Ilumi ready meals, but we need many more.
So, food manufacturers, step up to the plate! The FreeFrom world needs your input!