Two weeks ago, a group of ‘chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and caterers’ put their names to an open letter published in The Telegraph. In this letter, they rallied against the recent regulations introduced by the EU designed to make eating away from home an easier option for the many people, like myself, who suffer from a serious allergy.
It was on my radar at the time, but it has taken me a little while to fully digest the implications between the lines of their sparsely worded letter and to formulate a response which is not merely an outpouring of fury at the ignorance and arrogance which underpins their declarations.
On one level, actually, they’ve done me a favour: I now have a clear and categorical list of the establishments and proprietors I need to ensure I avoid whenever I fancy a meal out. I enjoy good food, and I love eating in restaurants when the occasion arises, but it simply isn’t worth risking a life-threatening allergic reaction if the person preparing my food isn’t willing, or able, to tell me whether it might contain nuts.
It is for this reason that the publication of the letter strikes me as an extraordinarily bad business move – ironic, really, when its signatories are aligned behind an organisation called ‘Business for Britain‘. Clearly it is more important for them to take a swipe at the EU than to consider the needs of a significant portion of their customer base. Conservative estimations of people suffering from acute, severe food allergies in the UK put the number at around 500,000. Other studies indicate that 6-8% of children in the UK – that’s over 1 million – have a proven food allergy. Whichever way you look at it, there are an awful lot of people whose health – and life – relies on knowing what is in the food they eat. They all have families and friends whose dining habits will be influenced by the allergy sufferer. So why exclude so many potential customers from your business?
This issue of exclusion is at the heart of my anger towards the signatories of this letter. Allergy is not a lifestyle choice. It is not something that causes mild irritation to its sufferers. It can – and does – cause death if the allergen is inadvertently consumed: there are between five and fifteen fatalities each year directly caused by food allergy in the UK. Many of these are due to meals eaten outside the home – and, as with the 18 year old who tragically died in Manchester earlier this year after eating a burger, allergy sufferers tend to be very clear with restaurant staff about the food they need to avoid. I mean, you would be, wouldn’t you, if you knew that eating the wrong thing could kill you?
Far too many times when I have asked the necessary questions with regards to my allergy the response of the waiting staff is that they cannot guarantee that any of their food is nut free. This warning is so ubiquitous now on packaged food that at first glance it might not seem so extraordinary, but in the types of establishments I favour – ones which serve freshly made food cooked from scratch – I really do find it quite odd. If it were true, then what else that is lying around in the kitchen might have made it into the food? Bleach, perhaps? Or maybe rat poison? The implied lack of caution about cleanliness and cross-contamination astounds me. In the vast majority of cases, when I push further for a response from the chef, they are happy to reassure me that they can prepare me a meal that is safe. If they don’t, then I can’t eat there. Simple, really.
Putting the issue of cross-contamination to one side, the signatories of the letter decrying the improved regulations seem to take things one step further. In complaining that the rules will destroy ‘spontaneity, creativity and innovation’ they seem to be implying that, as chefs, they have a right to add ingredients on a whim without the irritating distraction of the consumer taking away from their art. They seem to have forgotten that they have a responsibility to the people who are paying them to prepare their meal – and that responsibility includes providing food that is not going to cause illness or death to someone suffering from an allergy.
They complain of the ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ these new regulations have caused, but in reality businesses can comply with the new regulations simply by being able to verbally communicate, if asked, whether dishes contain any of the top 14 allergens. Having taught in the state system for ten years I fully appreciate the frustration that comes with seemingly unnecessary paperwork, but is that really too much to ask?
After recent high-profile scandals around the food we eat not being quite what we thought it was (horsemeat, anyone?), I think we would all like to know what it is we are putting in our bodies. If you have an allergy, this concern becomes even more important.
If you are a chef, I do not believe you have the right to exclude someone from accessing the services at your establishment because they suffer from a chronic medical condition. In fact I would argue that to do so flies in the face of legislation surrounding equality and access – particularly as recent rulings have declared that severe allergy is capable of being a disability.
Of course it would be lovely if we did not need to worry about the needs of others as we went about our personal and professional lives, if we could all act as we wished without concerning ourselves with the repercussions our actions might have on others, but the fact is we cannot. And in fact the world would be a far sorrier place if we did.
We all have responsibilities to others – and that is something these ‘top chefs‘ would do well to bear in mind.