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.