The Badger: The allergens minefield

The Badger: The allergens minefield

There can’t be many people who haven’t seen the news in the past month about Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, the teenager who died after suffering an allergic reaction to a Pret sandwich that contained sesame. It is a tragic case and, although Pret had not broken the law, the ripples from the case are still being felt. The girl’s parents are campaigning for a change in the law that will see consumers given more information about the ingredients in freshly produced food products.

Only yesterday, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, made the following statement: “Since receiving the coroner’s report, we have been working at pace with the Food Standards Agency [FSA] and businesses to review the current allergen labelling rules. We are aiming to bring forward concrete proposals to change the law around the turn of the year.

“I also want to make clear that businesses do not need to wait for the law to change to do the right thing. They should be doing all they can now to make sure consumers have the information they need to stay safe.”

So what do we make of that? In all likelihood we will have to make changes to our current allergen information provision, but for our sector of hospitality, where so much of the food we sell is made fresh on the day, the implications are significant.

Will the onus still be on the customer to ask, or on the business to provide all information at the point of sale? Currently the onus is on the consumer to ask and caterers must train their teams and have the information available to explain to customers what allergens are in certain products. If the future legislation states that all information must be provided at the point of sale so that a consumer can see allergen content without engaging with the catering team, that means we need to get it 100% right – every single time. Given human nature and human error, I worry about how safe that will be.

Arguably, we need to get it right every time now, but at least if there is some customer engagement with the catering team, there is a double-checking mechanism in place: the catering team can refer to their information files and ask chef if they are unsure. What happens when you are relying on a relief chef one day or you are short staffed?

There are three parts to the provision of this information: the customer asking, the caterer should be providing the information, and the supplier in advance gives us the data on their products … but the buck ultimately seems to stop with the caterer. Knowing that suppliers may often substitute products last minute, that can create last minute changes for the caterer to communicate. Many suppliers also use the voluntary part of existing legislation with statements such as ‘may contain’, and it is difficult for the caterer to pass this information on because we must state what allergens our products contain. If we then take the need for customer interaction out we are left with a minefield – and could you guarantee that everything will be 100% correct every time?

The FSA recently launched its ASK campaign to encourage customers concerned about allergens to ask for the information, and I do think we should all get behind it.

The other point to all this is administration. When you consider what information we currently have to provide, it is a huge amount of work on the part of the unit catering teams to do this and it is very onerous. If this becomes even more complex, how are our busy catering teams going to find the time to do it all? I think over-staffed units were consigned to history many years ago, and there is simply no fat in the labour budgets to find more time for people to do this, unless the client or the consumer will pay more.

In my humble opinion, they should pay more. I don’t have a problem with providing more information, but all of these changes come with a cost and caterers are always expected to absorb that cost. Maybe it’s time for the consumer to feel the pain too!

Whatever happens in the coming months, consultation is key and the government must be very careful to not make knee-jerk decisions. One tragic case like this is too many, but when you consider the billions of menu decisions that customers make throughout the year in this country, the frequency and chances of something awful like this happening are thankfully very rare. Therefore, we need to be careful not to make radical changes with huge implications that could cost the industry and our customers untold millions.

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