Killer Allergies

When you go out to eat, you don’t expect to be taking your life in your hands when you step through the restaurant door. But if you suffer from a food allergy, that’s exactly what you are doing. Six deaths a year are caused by food allergies and it seems the restaurant world isn’t exactly manning the barricades when it comes to food safety.

Let’s just clearly define what a food allergy is, as opposed to a food intolerance: A food allergy is not a rash or an itch or a bloated stomach. It involves an immune system response and it causes histamine to be produced in the body, leading in many cases to anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal if not treated immediately. The eight commonest food allergens are peanuts, eggs, milk, shellfish, wheat, fish, soy and tree nuts. Think how common all of these ingredients are in a kitchen, how many, many recipes they are used in, the inevitability of cross-contamination – and it might cause you to wonder how anyone with a genuine food allergy can ever eat out safely.

Last month in ‘Clinical & Experimental Allergy’ magazine, a survey was conducted of 90 restaurants in tourist Mecca Brighton as to their understanding and dealing with food allergens and their effects. Of these, a third of staff said they had received some basic understanding in their general training – although frighteningly 25%, it was revealed, thought a glass of water would dilute the allergen and its effects. Only three staff had attended a specific course and a third of kitchens didn’t separate common food allergens in preparation – we’re surprised it’s that low.

Unsurprisingly the onus is on the consumer to be safe when eating out; tips include phoning beforehand to warn them and asking them to prepare certain dishes; avoiding peak times when the kitchen is under more stress; asking for separate menus and asking about staff training. We’d say it kinda takes the fun out of the whole experience; you might as well stay in and cook your own.

However, in these enlightened times, would it be too much to expect a separate menu for food allergy sufferers? We’d like to stress that this isn’t about the latest dietary fad or catering to any old whim: this is actually about life and death. Obviously it’s a further cost to the restaurants, both in terms of staff training (and please, please could staff be better educated in this area?) and in terms of food preparation, but we’re sure that restaurants advertising their allergy-friendly menus would soon reap the benefit from loyal customers. At the moment, such an idea still seems to be pretty far-fetched, but it seems out of kilter in an age of such prominent health and safety awareness, when every disability and lifestyle choice can be catered to, that those for whom every mouthful is Russian roulette should be left on the wrong side of the door.

  • Fay Durrant

    I agree so much with this article, in this age of “health and safety” extremes where we are not allowed to take risks in just about any other way people who suffer from allergies really do take majour risks whenever they eat out. It is not as Bernie suggested that rare to have a severe allergy and it is not that we are requesting medical care, simply clear labeling and more understanding. A few years ago a wheelchair bound person would have found it difficult to eat in may places, now it inconcievable that wheelchair access is an issue, ( there is even disabled access in the field behind my house, not that I have ever seen a disabled person trying to get across the field!!) A food allergy is another sort of diasability and we are cut no slack! There are places that succesfully incorporate proper safe options for special diets and they are generally more popular for it… I would like to compile a comprehensive directory of places to stay and to eat all over the UK, what do people think?

  • Gay

    I have a severe allergy to Olives/Olive oil…I have not eaten out since this happened…I spent a week in hospital after the last time, that was a spoon full in the rice water..life is not so much fun now especially as Olives were my favourite food. I can’t even touch a cloth with oil on now.

  • Philip

    The sooner improved labelling on restaurant menu’s comes in the better. The consumer quite oftens wants to makes a choice on the dishes they eat on either ethical, health or medical grounds.

    Alot of restaurateurs just simply don’t care about what goes into there dishes, a head chef at a restaurant i know once told me….”My customers don’t ask what i put in my dishes, I tell them no lies”

    What an irresponsible and selfish attitude to have. Put the information out their for the consumers to let them make their own informed decisions.

  • Peter

    Very interesting article. and something to think about.

  • Sally

    Yes I agree staff, especially Chefs, should be better educated about the real dangers of food allergy.

    We once had a show-down with the Manager of a restaurant, who didn’t know mustard was made with eggs – the problem is neither did his Chef!

    Even though I had stressed my allergies to eggs and nuts prior to ordering, I had a serious allergic reaction after a couple of mouthfuls of food. My husband had to speak for me, I was too ill.

    After a long drawn-out process, they insisted there was nothing in the meal that could have affected me. I knew different and asked for a list of the ingredients, and we heard them say “mustard” before moving onto the next ingredient. We pointed out that mustard is made with eggs, and they had put this in the sauce. They didn’t realise!

    I would very much welcome allergy-friendly menus. I was lucky on this occasion, I lived to tell the tale, others may not be so lucky.

  • Fiona Rowe

    TRAINING AND FOOD PREPARATION AREAS NEEDS TO BE STRICTER TO PREVENT MISTAKES/cross contamination

  • Bernie Lugner

    A food allergy is a very serious disease, but an extremely rare one. If you know you have one, then it can’t be safe to eat anything except what has been specially prepared for you or by you, and where you know the provenance of all ingredients from source to plate. A restaurant can’t do that for you, and nor can I if you come to my home. Simply put, it is not reasonable to expect medical care at a restaurant.

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