People can be on restricted diets for medical or moral reasons, but catering establishments must be able to deal with them all safely. What must you do so that your customers can dine without danger? Antony Adshead reports
For food allergy sufferers, the merest trace of nut, for example, could be a matter of life or death, and about 10 people each year lose their lives as a result of allergic reactions to food. This is one good reason to make sure that you, as a caterer, are informed about the range of dietary requirements that exist.
Another reason is that while the most serious of consequences occur very rarely, there are millions of people whose food intake is governed by allergies, intolerances, health concerns and moral or religious issues. Ensuring that they are all able to observe such restrictions while still being able to enjoy eating out is a constant struggle, and catering establishments that can reassure them on this front will widen their customer base.
The Food Standards Authority has a "big eight" list of allergies, which includes peanuts and others nuts - such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazils and pecans. Then there are fish, shellfish, sesame seeds, eggs, milk products and soya. All of these can produce allergic reactions, and the associated swellings and inflammations can result in anything from mild discomfort to death.
The key issue with allergens is to be able to communicate to sufferers exactly what is in the food you prepare. To this end, the FSA recently issued a consultation document in which it recommends best practice. Rafaella Piovesan, a dietitian with contract caterer Elior, says that the consultation is to be welcomed and she supports the views it outlines.
"Due diligence for caterers means that, if a customer asks whether a dish contains a certain ingredient, they should always be able to get an answer there and then," she says. "Staff should know the answer or be able to go to someone on site who does. There should be no guessing, and all staff - including agency staff - should know the procedure."
Alongside allergies, there are various intolerances, of which the best known is that concerning wheat. This is known as coeliac disease, and sufferers who eat gluten - which is found in the grain - trigger an autoimmune reaction whose symptoms range from mild to severe. Coeliac sufferers form 1% of the population - about 600,000 people. The Coeliac Society has 70,000 members and provides information for members on where to eat, and to catering businesses on how they can best serve its members.
There are also those who choose to avoid particular foods for moral or religious reasons. The size of the vegetarian market illustrates the opportunity that catering for such needs presents. According to the Vegetarian Society (VS), there are about 3.5 million adherents to a meat-free diet in the UK, with a total market estimated to be worth £626m, up by 38% on the figure for 1999.
"There's a huge market for vegetarian foods and a lot of clout in the food industry," says VS spokeswoman Collette Walsh. "You also have to take into account the ‘meat reducers', thought to number one-third of the population. That's a lot of customers, so it's well worth catering for them. Vegetarianism is so mainstream now that such items should be included as part of the main menu."
The society recommends that, in a climate where people are aware of cutting down on meat and eating fruit and veg, the ideal way to promote vegetarian food is to highlight the healthy options it provides. So the society supplies information on catering for vegetarians and also runs its own Cordon Vert cooking schools.
And in addition to the 3.5 million vegetarians, there are about 500,000 vegans, who eat nothing that has come from an animal, eschewing even dairy products and honey.
In planning the menu for Smollensky's Metro restaurants across London - in Croydon, Charing Cross, Richmond-upon-Thames and Sutton, and specialising in burgers - purchasing manager April Moffatt decided to include a Quorn burger as a meat-free option. "This is a growing category for us, one which we believe will continue to increase in popularity as consumers move towards healthier eating," she says. The Quorn burger featured at the restaurants is a Southern-fried product, cooked separately from all meat products,
topped with salad and served on a bun.
There's no doubt that catering for special dietary requirements is important in today's marketplace. Outback Steakhouse is a US-based, Australian-style restaurant that has six outlets in the UK and is one of a number of restaurants recommended by the Coeliac Society. Operations director Mike Palmer says Outback got wise to special dietary requirements when Atkins diet fever was at its height. Now it checks its menus with nutritionists and has lots of gluten-free options.
It makes perfect business sense to do this, says Palmer. "We have lots of coeliac customers, which is no surprise as one in 25 families have a member who is gluten-intolerant," he says. "We have 50 tables so, when we're full, two of those are going to have people who are gluten-intolerant."
The restaurant's menus give advice to those on a gluten-free diet, suggesting that certain things be avoided, such as croûtons or Thousand Island dressing. Also, if someone is coeliac, they can bring their own bread or call in advance to have gluten-free stock ordered in.
Besides knowing what goes into your food, you must also be certain that staff know how to minimise the dangers in their daily tasks. This includes making sure that foods are handled, stored and prepared to avoid cross-contamination - and, if you have self-serve areas, you should warn customers that there's a
danger it can occur there too. Front-of-house staff should be able to tell customers what's in a dish - asking kitchen staff, if necessary - and menus should clearly say whether dishes contain potentially hazardous ingredients.
Much of dealing with special diets depends on communication. "Our chef is happy to sit and talk to people about what they need, and we encourage them to get on the phone," says Heather Thornton, director of sales and marketing at the Best Western Yew Lodge hotel, near Nottingham. "We say, ‘Don't be afraid to ask for exactly what you want.' It all helps to make sure people enjoy their time with us, and they'll pass on their good experiences when talking to people."
Even if people don't let Yew Lodge know what they need in advance, the hotel is quite confident about coping with impromptu demands. "We get instances of people with very severe allergies, and they don't tell you until they get here," says Thornton. "We can cope, though, as all our sauces are reductions and not made with thickening agents. We serve salads without dressings and steaks with a choice of sauces, so people can choose whether they want to avoid certain things."
Pub chain JD Wetherspoon can't hope to communicate with its customers at the same level but tries to ensure that customers know what's in its food.
"The main special requirements we come across are gluten intolerance, low-fat diets, vegetarians, veganism and nut allergies, and our food development team considers these when we develop new products," says food development manager Jeena Timothy. "Menus highlight products that contain nuts or are suitable for vegetarians, for example, so our customers can see all the options available."
If Wetherspoon's customers want more details, they're on the company website.
The bottom line for caterers is that you have a legal requirement to know what's in your food and must be able to communicate that to the customer. Under section 14 of the Food Safety Act 1990, businesses must not "sell to the purchaser's prejudice any food which is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded by the purchaser".
So if someone asks for a meal that doesn't contain something, and you give them a meal that does, you could face legal action.