‘It feels like we’re the punching bag’: How restaurants are dodging responsibility and letting allergy sufferers down

·8 min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When Charlotte told wait staff at a branch of TGI Friday’s in Brighton that she suffered from a severe allergy to nuts and seeds, she was asked to leave. She called her mother in tears. The 14-year-old had been visiting the restaurant to celebrate her best friend’s birthday, but the American diner chain refused to serve her.

“Charlotte was humiliated and embarrassed and left the restaurant with her friend, extremely upset and phoned me in a devastated state,” her mother Alison Oliver told a local newspaper at the time. Oliver believes the restaurant refused her daughter service following the recent introduction of Natasha’s Law – a new piece of legislation designed to keep people with allergies safe.

The new legislation followed the death of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who suffered fatal anaphylaxis after eating a Pret a Manger baguette which contained sesame seeds that were not listed in the ingredients. The law stipulates that pre-packed food made on a premises for direct sale must now include full ingredient and allergen labelling.

However, the new rules, which came into force on 1 October this year, have made some businesses so risk averse they are refusing to serve food to anyone who declares an allergy or asking customers with allergies to sign a waiver before they eat – despite advice not to do so from the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

TGI Fridays has since apologised to Alison Oliver and has committed to training its staff, and other branches of the chain have been well reviewed by allergy sufferers. But it appears to have been far from an isolated incident.

Lauren Baker, 25, from Huddersfield, was diagnosed with anaphylaxis to peanuts and tree nuts at just 18 months old. She says in the last two years the service she has received when eating out of the house has suddenly changed.

“I have had issues at numerous cafes and restaurants refusing service or making me prove I have my EpiPens with me before they would serve me,” she tells The Independent. “It’s really bad that they think because you have meds it’s ok; no, I could still die even with them. It definitely is getting worse compared to when I was younger. It’s difficult to know how to respond, I would always want to walk out however, it’s quite embarrassing.”

 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Baker finds that larger chains are often better at understanding their responsibilities and taking dietary requirements seriously, but small local restaurants often refuse to engage in the conversation about risk and choose not to serve instead.

Other sufferers report an impact on their social lives because of the increase in embarrassment. John Junior, 33, developed nut allergies at age 18 and says he’s been turned away from restaurants with friends a number of times in recent weeks. “It just puts you off and ruins the night,” he says. “I feel left out. It’s made me anxious and upset.”

Many allergy sufferers have found they have to plan ahead more than they used to, to avoid being caught out. Cat Whitehouse, 41, from London, has a severe airborne allergy to crustaceans and also avoids dairy and soy. Her partner cannot eat gluten. They’ve found their options for eating out are becoming increasingly limited, and they are now often turned away at the door.

We’d like to support small, local restaurants but we can’t if they won’t have the conversation

Cat Whitehouse

“It happens quite a bit. We find we’re restricted to a few chain restaurants who publish their allergy details and you can really trust,” she explains. “We’re now just used to that whole thing where you always carry food with you, even though I make calls in advance and I keep a note of places I’ve checked out. It’s such a shame because we’d like to support small, local restaurants but we can’t if they won’t have the conversation.”

In the UK, up to 2 per cent of adults and between 5 and 8 per cent of children are living with a good allergy. That equates to approximately 2 million people who are dealing with these restrictions, according to the Anaphylaxis Campaign, and of course their friends and families. For businesses such as restaurants, cafes and street food outlets, that’s a huge customer base to reject – and it’s a figure that does not account for those who live with intolerances, who may also be marginalised by the new law.

The rules for businesses are clear: they must understand the full ingredient list for their products and what allergens the product does, or may, contain. They must also be able to inform their customers of the risks around exposure, and do everything possible to avoid any risk of cross contamination in their kitchens or preparation areas, for example by using different oils to fry different products and never using the same utensils to serve two different dishes.

However, the FSA does also warn businesses that “if you can’t avoid cross-contamination in food preparation, you should inform customers that you can’t provide an allergen-free dish.” Some outlets are now using this advice as a get-out clause, rather than doing the hard work required to serve someone with an allergy safely.

The tactic isn’t a safe one: customers may decide not to declare an allergy and assess the risks for themselves from a menu, without asking for proper guidance from waiting staff, if they think speaking up will mean they are asked to leave.

For Dawn Smith, from Edinburgh, who lives with coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition where the body attacks its own tissue in response to the ingestion of gluten, eating out has become increasingly difficult.

I’ve had one restaurant read me out a legal script warning me of the risks - done very loudly to make me feel uncomfortable

Dawn Smith

“I have been in places where they’ve intentionally put me off to such an extent I’ve chosen not to eat. I’ve had one restaurant read me out a legal script warning me of the risks - done very loudly to make me feel uncomfortable. I know the hospitality industry is struggling, but it feels like we’re the punchbag sometimes.”

The risks of choosing to eat out are even higher for those who have an allergy not listed within the EU’s top 14, and which are therefore not covered by the current legislation. Businesses often refuse to provide any information about these ingredients to customers, even when asked. Once a rare ingredient, pea protein is now used in place of gluten for many dishes. It is related to the peanut and can cause allergic reactions, but there’s no requirement by law to list it and restaurants are not able to answer customers’ questions on it when asked.

Alexa Baracaia, author of My Family and Food Allergies: The All You Need to Know Guide, says businesses are using the new rules as an easy way out. Although Natasha’s Law is raising general awareness of allergies, provision and choice for allergy sufferers isn’t following. The author has a 10-year-old son who has multiple allergies and describes the process of eating out post-pandemic as “hugely frustrating”.

“Countless times I’ve been faced with a pre-rehearsed spiel… ‘everything may contain all of the allergens that ever existed’,” she laments. “You’re effectively blocked from having an open conversation."

 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Baracaia would like to see an allergen training certification scheme introduced that sits alongside the FSA’s well known hygiene rating, so customers can see at a glance whether the business has the understanding required for them to be trusted.

However she warns customers with allergies to know their rights before they enter a restaurant or cafe. They should always refuse to sign a waiver, and if asked to do so they should remind the business that the FSA states that they cannot avoid or limit their legal responsibilities by brandishing a contract and a pen.

To moderate the risk, Baracaia opts for old faithful chain restaurants, which often offer comprehensive allergen information. Her family favourites are Pizza Express, Nando’s, Franca Manca and Wagamama. The latter scores highly in customer reviews on the website Allergy Companions, set up by Lijia Polo-Richards to share information about where it is best to eat out with allergies. The crowdsourcing site shares restaurant reviews by real customers, giving tips about the quality of information provided by waiting staff, but also how welcome and comfortable customers felt while eating.

Polo-Richards hopes the Allergy Companions site will help influence businesses to improve their processes, especially since those working the hardest to be accommodating are already reaping the rewards and garnering real loyalty among customers.

After all, as customers with allergies continue to face discrimination and a lack of information from servers, relying on word of mouth is the only way they can make selections that keep them safe. Until all food businesses try better to meet the needs of all customers, they don’t have any choice.

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