Travelling with special dietary needs

I am Marc Warde and along with my business partner Adrian Morgan we own Niche Free-from Kitchen, a free-from manufacturing business based in Harlow Essex with manufacturing partners in the United States and Thailand.  The free-from production business was born as an evolution to our gluten-free restaurant Niche Gluten-Free Dining in Angel Islington.  Having been diagnosed Coeliac back in 2013 my business partner Adrian suggesting there is no point owning a restaurant you can’t eat in, from there the journey began.  The restaurant has grown in reputation over the years, winning multiple awards and accolades for its food, service, and catering for those with allergies.  The restaurant is gluten, nut, tree nut and sesame free.

At the time I was culinary director for Alpha LSG, now called DNATA, the largest airline catering company in the UK, catering for almost 100 airlines at 14 airports.  Whilst there I felt there was a huge gap in the special meals provision.  Airline flight kitchens are simply not equipped or designed to safely produce meals for allergy sufferers. Special meals as its termed in the airline and travel industry is a range of meals that span both medical, religious, and what is termed lifestyle meals based on codes put in by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) some 33 years ago. I felt then and still do these codes do not meet the modern, allergy and dietary meals of today, they are also not governed by IATA.  So, Libero was born,  manufactured in Niche Free-from Kitchen and with our partners outside the UK. We have taken these codes used by the industry to provide meals that suit all dietary types, combining codes so that for example the gluten-free meal is also dairy-free and the vegan meal is also gluten-free.

Libero is exclusively a world of free-from dining, we are dietary meals specialists, catering for the travel, airline, and foodservice sectors. Travellers of today especially now are   actively seeking their dietary, food allergy and intolerance needs to be not only met, but exceeded, without fear of cross-contamination or compromise. Our food must taste delicious, not just simply cater for a dietary requirement. Bland, compromising food, with fruit salad for every special meal no longer cuts the mustard these days. Getting special meals right takes imagination, creativity, thought and a little bit of science.

We are exclusively a gluten, nut, tree nut and sesame-free business. We cater for all cabins, from economy to private jets and have a huge selection of dairy-free, vegan, and vegetarian meals in addition to the most requested special meals, in addition, some of the more modern diets followed today; our DBML or diabetic meal is also Ketogenic (KETO) – perfect if you have put on a pound or two over lock-down? Our BLML (aka bland meal) is also Low Fodmap a much sought-after dietary requirement, seldom delivered.

Food allergies are on the rise and special dietary meals are an area to take seriously which is why we set up this business. Customers may select an airline on price/destination in the most part, however there is research which suggests that customers with special dietary needs or allergies will select an airline based on their dietary needs being met and taken seriously. Perhaps now more than ever before.

I recently moderated a discussion for the World Travel Show around wellness and managing food allergies on board.  On the discussion panel was Audrey Hart from Virgin Atlantic, one of our Libero Special Meals clients, along with Caroline Benjamin from Food Allergy Aware and Julianne Ponan from Creative Nature.  The discussion was a lively one giving perspectives from both an airline who passionately cares about the well being of its passengers and wants to do the best possible job in catering for those with food allergies and three of us who live with the reality food allergies.  Virgin really are leading the way for many airlines and travel companies to follow with their Special Meals program.  We learned from Audrey who really knows her stuff, how greatly jurisdictions differ throughout the world around allergens, in Europe and the UK we adopt the 14 allergens, but other countries have very different sets of rules, or lack thereof, so formulating best practice along with their auditing company Medina to ensure their partners and stakeholders come on the journey.

We talked about our experiences as allergy sufferers travelling, and ensuring we take food with us “just in case”.  Julianne who has multiple allergies and has anaphylaxis; along with Caroline who has a gluten and dairy intolerance relayed their experiences and we discussed Natasha’s case and the upcoming Natasha’s law, food labelling and what that means for airlines.  Julianne talked about her preparations for travel as a person who lives with severe nut and sesame allergies and relayed about her experience of the last time, she and I were at the World Travel Show in Hamburg speaking about allergies back in 2019.  After that show Julianne who had informed the airline of her allergies prior to the flight was refused boarding for the flight, somehow like telling their passengers they couldn’t eat nuts for a couple of hours was taking away their human rights!   I felt very guilty for having invited Julianne to speak with me about anaphylaxis at the show only to be told she couldn’t get on the return flight.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just put on alternative nut-free and sesame-free snacks and say no nuts on board might be an easier solution all round?

The talk is due to be posted on the OnBoard Hospitality Magazine channel on YouTube shortly so keep an eye out as its definitely worth a watch.

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