Staff at major restaurant brands including Frankie & Benny's, Pizza Hut and Nando's gave out incorrect allergen information when asked by undercover reporters during an investigation by BBC Watchdog Live.
In total, staff at five of the 30 outlets visited by the journalists gave unclear or incorrect information, some of which could have been dangerously misleading.
In one Frankie & Benny's restaurant a staff member said an Eggs Royale dish did not contain celery, despite the group's website stating that it did. The BBC has said the employee did not consult kitchen staff or a product information guide.
At another of the chain's restaurants, a reporter was asked to agree to terms and conditions stating Frankie & Benny's could not guarantee a dish was allergy free with the server stating the form "saves our backs".
At a Pizza Hut branch, a server was unable to understand the information in the restaurant's allergy advice book so could not tell the reporter if mac ‘n' cheese or a pepperoni pizza contained mustard. In a branch of Nando's, a server guessed that a burger did not contain mustard, but when an allergen book was checked it was found to.
Reporters also visited a Cosa Coffee branch where a server said a mince pie containing milk was actually made with soya milk, despite consulting an allergy book. In a Starbucks branch advice regarding a lemon loaf cake was ambiguous with a staff member saying it did not contain nuts before stating that there was a risk of contamination. The cake's ingredients list in fact stated it contained almonds.
PizzaExpress was the only chain to give reporters accurate advice in each of the five branches visited by the Watchdog Live team.
Tony Lewis, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, added: "Five is a significant number and if you scale it up nationally, it becomes a very, very large number indeed. And that's worrying, that there's businesses out there that will be asked by people with allergies for information, and they're not being given the right information or they're being misled in some instances. That's really scary and that's what bothers me a lot."
Frankie and Benny's, owned by The Restaurant Group whose shareholders today agreed for it to purchase Wagamama, said in a statement: "We are deeply concerned by the incident raised by Watchdog and have acted swiftly to reinforce our already strict procedures. We fully understand the need for detailed food information and take our obligations on allergens extremely seriously. It is clear that on this occasion our very strict procedures were not followed and we are focused on ensuring it cannot happen again. We have fully reviewed our allergens training for staff across all our restaurants and will further strengthen the independent audits, which are regularly conducted across our restaurant estate."
A Nando's spokesperson said: "In order to make sure everyone can enjoy a delicious PERi-PERi meal that is safe for them to eat, we ask our restaurant managers to personally handle orders for anyone who has an allergy. This way, they can take the customer through the menu specifications, and process their order from start to finish. We're sorry that on this occasion this process wasn't followed perfectly. As a matter of priority, we have since reminded all our employees of the processes in place and their importance."
A Pizza Hut Restaurants spokesperson said: "All of our allergen and nutritional information is available in a printed book in each of our restaurants and also online. All of our staff receive specialist training, however due to the variety of ingredients used within the restaurant menu, and the diverse range of enquiries, we do direct guests to check the information for themselves through the formats available.
"In this specific instance the information in the book provided was correct, but we have taken the feedback on board and added QR codes to our menu cards this week which link through to all of our nutritional information."
A Costa Coffee spokesperson told us: "At Costa Coffee, we take the health and wellbeing of our customers extremely seriously and are committed to providing our customers with all the information they need to make informed choices, including allergy and nutritional information. All our pre-packaged food is labelled with allergy and nutritional information. There is a sticker on each cake counter which directs customers to our store teams for further information and each store has a guide detailing the allergy and nutritional information for every Costa Coffee product.
"All our store teams receive training on how to communicate allergen information, however, on this occasion, the team member failed to follow correct procedure and provided the wrong information. This is clearly unacceptable and we have re-issued guidance and best practice to all stores as part of our ongoing commitment to train and develop our teams to help customers make informed choices based on their needs."
Starbucks said in a statement: "In this instance, we fell short on this commitment and did not meet our own high standards, which include consulting the allergen manual found in each store. All our baristas are trained to support customers with specific allergy and dietary needs, and allergen information is also available on our website to help customers make the right decisions for themselves. We have addressed this issue with our team at the store in question, and we have been in touch with all of our UK stores to reinforce our standards and expectations."
The full report on allergens information provided in restaurants and coffee shops can be seen on Watchdog Live tonight (Wednesday 28 November) at 8pm on BBC One.