Food allergies in the UK: setting the scene for action in 2014 for Hospitality Industry

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January 27, 2014

Food allergies in the UK: setting the scene for action in 2014

Caroline Benjamin is interviewed at the recent FATC conference on the New Food Allergen Information Regulations – media attention is set to intensify in 2014)

The introduction of the new EU Food Information Regulations 1169/2011 on 13 December 2014 will have an immense effect on both the hospitality industry and in turn customers with food allergies or intolerances.

What does this mean for food service businesses?

Going forward all food service establishments will need to provide detailed information of the ingredients contained within ALL their food dishes and drinks.  Specifically they will need to highlight the 14 allergens as listed within the regulations.  Businesses will no longer be able to claim they “do not know” when asked for detailed information on contents.   Customers will also be able to request detailed information in a written format from their host.

In addition, food service establishments will need to demonstrate due diligence of the products used and ensure they have open lines of communication with their suppliers to ensure they are aware of changes to recipes and products.

The number of people with food allergies is growing in the UK

Food allergies currently affect 1-2% of adults and around 5-8% of children in the UK. These numbers are thought to be growing as allergies of all kinds are on the increase.

Recent data from the Anaphylaxis Campaign charity has found that 22% of adults believe they are food allergic (or intolerant) and are willing to spend more on food which they view as higher quality due to their dietary requirements.

This gives a strong business case for getting it right first time, every time, and ensuring that training and procedures are in place to provide safe options for this growing market.

Smaller food businesses may struggle to be compliant by the deadline

As I write this article in January 2014, there is less than a year until the EU legislation comes into force, and larger food service chains and businesses are starting to put policies into place which will ensure their adherence to the mandatory requirements of these regulations. However, it is thought that many small food service businesses will struggle to get the staff knowledgeable and the procedures in place to provide good practices within their establishments by the deadline.

Businesses are currently waiting on final details from DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency as to how the legislation should be managed by the industry.    This poses another challenge: how can companies effectively plan ahead for the new legislation when the Government’s bodies for communicating the details to industry haven’t yet agreed the finer details?

Inadequate staff training

Some food businesses are currently providing allergen information on special menus for customers with specific ‘dietary requirements’. Yet in this handful of cases it appears there is evidence that the staff providing the information to the customer are either not adequately trained or do not have the correct communication skills to explain the details correctly, either  to consumers or internally to colleagues within their business.  In short, allergen information for customers dining out can be very poor and inconsistent.

Food allergy sufferers struggle to find consistent venues which are safe for them when eating out

Eating out for most people is an enjoyable experience, but for people who have Coeliac Disease, food allergies, or intolerances, it can be a very stressful event. For example, choosing where to eat out for a business lunch can require careful planning that involves reviewing the menu, liaising with the restaurant manager to discuss adaptions to the menu, and checking how the venue avoids cross contamination issues.

It can often involve a visit to a prospective venue before it is even booked.  Imagine how time consuming and frustrating that is for anyone with dietary requirements? They simply wish to dine out and enjoy socialising with business, family or friends like anyone else. Instead, each time they wish to do so it requires military style planning!

Even with the greatest planning and research, disappointment can still follow.  Often mistakes can happen on the day or staff assume or agree something is allergen free when it isn’t due to lack of understanding and staff training. Eating out ‘on the go’ is even more difficult and is another story for another day.

Social media and the food allergen customer

If an allergen guest has a bad customer service experience when they have requested an allergen free meal, the first place they often turn to blow off steam and vent their frustration is social media, which of course is bad PR for those venues that fall short on customer service due to a lack of training when providing for those on restricted diets.

Karen Fewell, Director of social media consultancy Digital Blonde, recently highlighted that a negative review on social media could lose a hospitality business approximately 30 customers! Can your business  afford to lose customers in the current climate?

All is not doom and gloom. I have seen many positive comments from customers that have had great experiences and have been impressed with the service and meal they have received at a venue.

The power of positive PR

You’ll often find that customers on restricted diets are very loyal and keen to sing the praises of those companies that can get things right first time. Just check Facebook groups and bloggers online from ‘Gluten Free Guerrillas’ to the ‘The Gluten Free Blogger’ and see the power of positive PR in the Coeliac Community alone.

Larger food restaurant chains with policies and procedures in place are not immune from consumer criticism. Although they have more resources and funding for training relating to allergens, they often have higher levels of staff turnover than smaller chains which can mean there is a risk of gaps in training.

Most customers with allergies or intolerances do not wish to make a fuss: their criteria is firstly to be reassured that they can eat safely, and secondly to be able to have as much choice of dishes from the menu as possible so they don’t feel excluded due to their dietary restriction.  Value for money and quality is not too much to ask for?

Customers will become more vocal

When the NEW EU regulations come into place, I can foresee coeliac and food allergy or food intolerant customers becoming even more vocal online as they demand that food service businesses comply with the law and provide a safe meal they can eat with confidence.  Once the new regulations are in place, if customers are not supplied with the information as per the regulation, they can then highlight their concerns to their local Trading Standard Office who will review the complaint with the venue.  Initially they would receive a warning and/or improvement notice.  Failure to comply could lead to prosecution with a fine which is currently set at a maximum of £5,000.

Where does the FSA (Food Standards Agency) fit into all of this?

Part of their remit is to stress the importance to consumers to highlight their dietary restriction to their server. It is important there is open dialogue communicated between the two parties and that the food service business reconfirms that they understand the dietary requirement. Communication is key to ensure the legislation is workable.  The FSA also provides online information to help food service businesses prepare for these changes.

The business case for ‘Free From’ menus

Currently there is no official research of ‘free from’ figures within the food service industry, yet the estimated growth for the retail sector for the period  2012 – 2017 is  46% from £385 to £561 million (Mintel 09/13).  The number of adults buying ‘free from’ foods has nearly doubled between 2012 and 2013 (Mintel 09/13)

In addition to allergies and intolerances, Coeliac disease currently affects 1 in 100 people, which is thought to be only 15% of the true figure (Coeliac UK) and the retail market share is said to be worth over £100 million in the UK alone.

Catering for the food allergy customer is a growing market, especially within the hospitality industry.  Companies including ASK Italian, Bella Italia, Pizza Express to Pizza Hut have been gaining rave reviews online as they adapt their menus and train their staff to ensure they provide a safe meal for the Coeliac customer.  But more needs to be done to ensure consistency and ongoing training is in place within food service businesses to cover all the main allergens listed within the regulations.

The future

Over the coming months, we will be posting a series of articles to help you understand your obligations under the new legislation and how you can engage and understand the food allergen, intolerant and coeliac customer.

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