New laws designed to instil confidence in allergy sufferers when eating out came into force in late 2014. And although many operators are ahead of the game, the hospitality industry is still not where it should be. Elly Earls reports
Allergies, intolerances and coeliac disease have increased rapidly across the UK and Europe over recent years. The latest statistics show that allergies affect 30%-35% of the population at some stage of their lives. Moreover, approximately 10 people die each year in the UK alone because of an allergic reaction to food. According to the European Commission, seven out of 10 allergic reactions happen when eating out.
The new allergen legislation was introduced in 2014 in response to this, with the aim of instilling confidence in Europe's fast-growing population of allergy sufferers. Currently, according to research conducted by national charity Allergy UK in 2015, eating out is the aspect of allergy sufferers' lives most impacted by their allergies, with 92% of participants highlighting it as a problem.
Yet, when allergy sufferers do find a restaurant or café where they feel confident eating out, you can bet they'll be back. "Once they have confidence in your brand, they become the most loyal customers," says Simon Yandell, sales and marketing manager at the Rainforest Café in London, which has had allergy codes in place since 2007 and only had to make a few tweaks to its procedures when the new laws came into force in 2014.
Businesses doing it right
Rainforest Café isn't the only operator doing it right. A survey carried out by the British Hospitality Association (BHA) in September 2015 found that 98% of its members who responded had put in place controls to comply with the new regulations.
According to Fiona Sinclair, a director at food safety and training consultancy STS, the impact on most food businesses has been pronounced. "For many, the initial impact and challenge was deciding on the best approach to compliance. This has required a lot of man hours for research, information-gathering and implementation," she says, adding that the regulations have had a much bigger impact on small and medium-sized enterprises who do not usually have the infrastructure to complete the training and menu analysis required.
"Many have found the administration cumbersome, especially those with extensive menus. Operators who change their menus and specials regularly have a real challenge to analyse allergen information. And some with complex, multi-site operations have had little alternative than to invest in software to help."
Others, like contract caterer Bartlett Mitchell, have created their own. "We developed our own system on the back of the electronic ordering tool to allow allergens information to be realised upon the creation of a recipe," explains the company's quality standards auditor Sally Grimes. "As the chefs need to create the recipes anyway to realise costs, it was relatively simple to then enter the allergen data for each ingredient in conjunction with suppliers."
Close collaboration with suppliers is key to meeting the requirements of the new legislation - particularly if substitutes need to be made. "There is a need for a joined-up approach and collaboration between caterers and their suppliers," Sinclair stresses.
Staff training, too, has been expanded by many operators to include allergens. At CH&Co Group, for example, bespoke training courses have been developed for team members with some staff designated 'allergen champions'.
Going beyond the actual requirements of the legislation, more operators are also becoming aware of how to prevent allergen cross-contamination, as well as developing dishes that appeal to those who suffer from allergies. For example, gluten-free menus are now relatively commonplace, at least in chain restaurants, and some smaller operators are also rethinking dishes.
Overall, these developments have made consumers with allergies more confident about dining out. And while much of the evidence is still anecdotal, the BHA's September survey found that 15% of respondents had noticed an increase in requests for allergen information, a good indication that the dialogue between diner and operator has improved.
And there is more progress on the way. Allergy UK is set to launch an accreditation scheme - the Allergy Aware Scheme - in April, which, the charity hopes, will become recognised across the industry as a 'Gold Standard'.
"This demonstrates the outlet has gone above and beyond what is required by the regulations and that they fully understand and support the food allergic consumer," says Allergy UK chief executive Carla Jones, adding that since the scheme launched to trade in July 2015, Allergy UK has received a huge amount of interest from catering outlets.
The other side of the story
It's not all good news, however. An undercover investigation by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found in July 2015 that just over two-thirds of takeaways appeared to be breaking the law, with chicken shops the worst offenders. Of those visited, four in five couldn't supply legally required allergen information when asked, and none had records of allergens used as ingredients.
Sinclair's experience bears this out. "Some, largely smaller businesses have not yet felt an impact," she says. "Perhaps this is symptomatic of the reliance some small food business operators still have on their local environmental health officers for advice and coaching. As some visits are becoming more infrequent, there is a black hole in information for some."
This is despite several recent incidents that have resulted in the deaths of customers. For example, in early 2015 a teenager died following an allergic reaction to a chicken burger in the Manchester restaurant Almost Famous. She had informed staff about her food allergies and the restaurant staff advised her that the chicken dish would be appropriate for her to eat.
It is understood the dish contained, or was cooked in, one of the ingredients she was allergic too. According to Liz Allan, founder of training provider Allergy Aware Kitchen, there are still many foodservice companies that, while they are not ignoring the legislation, don't recognise the need for their front-of-house or kitchen staff to be taught how to understand their allergic guests. "My belief is that they are relying on the written allergen ingredients [as] many are scared of the consequences if they 'get it wrong'. But just putting some paperwork together isn't how it works - you have to make sure your staff understand what they are being asked," she says.
Yinka Makinde, founder of allergen compliance company Vital Footprint, agrees that many outlets are still doing as little as they can get away with. "For many, catering for 'free from' consumers means taking a bold step to adapt to the new environment," she says.
"The cost of change is front-loaded. Not all food businesses feel they have the resources for the up-front investment, and some fear the consequences from their established client base. Hence, many are still playing 'safe' and just doing the bare minimum."
More improvements expected over the next 12 months
The consensus among industry commentators is that we can expect to see further progress over the next year as operators refine their procedures and become more confident in dealing with allergy sufferers. "Fear of serving people with allergies is one of the most important areas of concern for food-service operators. This fear is stopping them from learning how to safely provide food to allergic customers," Allan says.
"[But] once companies get over the fear of 'what might happen' and start buying into the idea of this growing market, they will probably start seeing a substantial rise in turnover."
Most importantly, as Gather & Gather's performance director Barry Moore emphatically concludes: "We need to get it right - lives are at stake!"
Ever since a diner had an allergic reaction to tomatoes in London's largest family restaurant, the Rainforest Café, in 2007, the team has been only too aware of what a huge impact food can have on people's lives. So when the new regulations came into force in 2014, it was a relatively straightforward task for them to get up to speed.
As processes were already in place to make sure the restaurant identified allergy sufferers upon reservation, as well as when they entered the restaurant, and menus were coded for allergies, the main change that needed to be made was ensuring the menu coding complied with the new legislation.
"We simply had to change from saying what wasn't in a dish to what was in a dish, and actually it was quite straightforward," explains sales and marketing manager Simon Yandell. He adds that although the original Rainforest Café coding was left in the menu at first, this will be removed in April as customers are now used to seeing what dishes do, rather than don't, contain.
More recently, the team has also developed an online 'Allergy Checker', which sufferers can log onto, select the ingredients they are allergic to, and be presented with an Á la carte menu including only the dishes suitable for them. "We found that although our menu in-store was inclusive, but our online menu wasn't. And introducing the Allergy Checker has also allowed us to identify where there are gaps in our menu," Yandell says.
For Yandell, operators that aren't yet up to speed really need to think about not only what a huge market the allergy sufferer community is, but also how loyal these customers can be. "News travels fast; if you're a family that has one or more allergy sufferers within it and you have a good experience in a restaurant, you share that much more than a consumer without allergies would."
Clerkenwell-based café Printworks Kitchen, the brainchild of a Leiths-trained chef and an award-winning baker, opened after the new regulations came into force, so has been living by them from day one. "We knew we had to be aware of the regulations, but we thought, 'Why not make it a feature?'" says manager Catherine Rose (pictured), whose background is in free-from and vegan baking.
Printworks Kitchen specialises in dishes that are naturally free-from and completely homemade, which means the team can keep a close eye on all the ingredients that go into every cake, muffin or meal. But that doesn't mean processes and procedures haven't had to be put in place to ensure the regulations are being fully complied with.
Not only is absolutely everything written down every week (the menu at Printworks Kitchen changes weekly), the whole team is trained in what the 14 allergens, how to avoid cross contamination, and what they can and can't legally say to customers.
For Rose, the most important thing she tells her staff is 'never guess'. "That's the reason we write down all the ingredients the week before, so the customers can be confident that we know what we're talking about," she says.
And because this is the way the café has always dealt with things, Rose and her team have already built up a loyal following. "All of our customers that do have requirements have always been really confident and many of them come back again and again," she says.
There are a number of allergen management solutions on the market that operators can use to get reassurance that they are following the new regulations to the letter - some are add-ons to e-procurement or EPoS systems, and others are standalone solutions that can be integrated with an operator's existing systems.
Vitalfootprint's vitalCustomer is one of the latter. Not only does the simple online solution allow operators to manage allergen data, it can also be connected with Vitalfootprint's eatjoy app, which uses the recipe information sorted within vitalCustomer to communicate allergen, nutrition and provenance information direct to customers.
"We're focused on helping our clients to maximise the value that can be created through 'intelligent' menus," Vitalfootprint founder Yinka Makinde explains. "Our focus is on working with clients who really want to realise this value, and to make the process of adoption as easy as possible for them by linking with as many of the existing [popular] supplier systems as possible."
Another allergen management solution that has proven popular with operators is purchasing company PSL's 'What's In My Dish?' web app, which has been a huge and unexpected success, now containing over 120,000 pieces of allergen information that are updated daily, and over 50,000 client recipes.
Richard Grime, managing director of one WIMD client, Classic Lodges, says: "'What's In My Dish?' has helped the chefs cope with providing our guests with up-to-date and more accurate allergen information. The potential allergens are identified from a live database, constantly receiving supplier product and allergen updates. These are then linked to the recipes.
"By introducing this system we have been able to feel more comfortable that the information we provide to our diners is reliable and, most importantly, can give them comfort that the menu item they are selecting is compatible with their allergy."
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