Why chefs need to take responsibility for what is in their food

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.

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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.

18 thoughts on “Why chefs need to take responsibility for what is in their food

  1. Ju L

    Since G (aged 6) was diagnosed with anaphylactic nut allergy last year it has been a source of discrimination for our whole family in terms of eating out. In fact we don’t really eat out anymore. We have checked in many many nice places where we would like to go and eat, snacks, meals etc. and most often the answer is “well we cannot guarantee that the kitchen area would be free from nuts”. And we leave. As you say, this seems most common in the sorts of places where things are made from scratch, as some of the big chain restaurants are very clear about their ingredients, and very good at ensuring a safe meal. But they are not necessarily where we would like to eat – staying local geographically and in terms of spending is something we are keen on.

    I have often thought that there is direct comparison with the need for disabled access to the building in the first place, as this allergy would not be wished upon anyone, or their families, and is something that we now rule our lives by day to day.

    Thankyou for writing this in a more articulate way that I would manage!

    Reply
    1. Ju L

      In addition, I have just perused the long list of chefs etc. who sent the letter. I am gutted at some of the names on there. Glad there are not too many local ones.

      Reply
      1. sophieblovett Post author

        Some of them are really surprising aren’t they? I’m sure they tried to get more people on board though, so we should be able to take solace in the names that are not on the list… x

    2. sophieblovett Post author

      It’s so hard isn’t it? I’m terrified that Arthur will have an allergy too – I’d be way more scared about him than I am about myself… I was really interested to find that information about severe allergy being considered a disability – I’m sure it would shift peoples’ thinking if they saw it like that, and might just stop businesses from being so blatantly discriminatory.

      Reply
  2. Mummy Tries

    I was shocked to see some of the names that are on the list tbh, and it’s awful that they have this attitude. As you rightly said it’s not like we have a choice… Unfortunately the only way to be certain that you’re eating a free from meal is to cook it yourself. Like you I love food and eating out, but rarely do anymore because it’s such a pain. Great post lovely, although it’s a shame it had to be written xx

    Reply
    1. sophieblovett Post author

      You’re very right about home cooking – in fact I often think that one of the positives about having a nut allergy has been that I have become a much better cook myself! A shift in thinking by the catering industry is clearly well overdue though… xx

      Reply
  3. dclovett

    Absolutely well said….

    Ignorance by those with good reputations in their chosen field is repugnant and may indicate that the reputations are not deserved.

    Let’s out the chefs who don’t give a damn about the people they are paid to serve.

    David Lovett

    >

    Reply
    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Thanks 🙂 They’ve outed themselves! Which is what’s so crazy about that letter. I understand some of the chefs involved have since retracted the statement, but still there is a long way to go…

      Reply
  4. One Two Culinary Stew

    Really disappointed in their attitude. It’s such a ridiculous letter… the signatories should be ashamed of themselves. If they can’t be bothered to tell their customers what’s in their food, they shouldn’t be cooking. Sounds more like anti-EU sentiment to me, that’s probably marring their common sense. I don’t have allergies but my son does. I will still be boycotting places such as Patisserie Valerie and Wahaca for their poor attitude. My company has been using Ebury Restaurant & Wine Bar for our Xmas parties & business lunches for years. I’m putting a stop to that.

    Reply
    1. sophieblovett Post author

      Good on you! I think it’s definitely time those of us affected by allergy started voting with our feet. I agree with you that there’s more than a slight whiff of anti-EU sentiment here, but it’s just way too important an issue to be used as a political pawn. Thanks for your support.

      Reply
      1. One Two Culinary Stew

        I’m from Canada. North America is so much more allergy aware (schools, restaurants). I moved to the UK over 10 years ago and we are still not at the same level. Some people here aren’t even prescribed Epipens. A good establishment in Canada or the US will immediately understand the needs of a customer with an allergy, including cross-contamination issues. But here, it’s ignorance, or worse, eye-rolling. I’m not saying all places here are like this, but a great many are… so perhaps this EU legislation will kick their butts into gear. Who knows? But I do see it as a step in the right direction because the UK has done very little on its own. I just wish the cross-contamination issue was addressed, not just the actual allergen… because some people with severe allergies, like my son, can have an anaphylactic reaction to traces.

      2. sophieblovett Post author

        The cross-contamination issue is key – I always stress the danger of traces to restaurants too. You would have thought that with all the hygiene regulations already in place this wouldn’t be a problem – it does make me wonder what’s going on in kitchens when they kick up a fuss!

  5. raibaker

    it was a very short open letter wasn’t it or am I looking at the wrong thing? It seemed the main complaint was that the new laws regarding listing allergens would stifle their creativity. I would suggest that working around allergens as we have to (my son has gone into anaphylaxis 4 times to different foods) means that we have to be extra creative in the kitchen! It could be viewed as an incredible opportunity for chefs to become more creative and more inclusive in their cooking… thanks for writing this response – it is marvellous and far less ANGRY than anything I would have written would be.
    peace and smiles to you

    Reply
    1. sophieblovett Post author

      It was a very short letter I think… I saw a lot of the media response before I read the letter itself! You’re right that working around allergens is a far more creative process than having no limitations – I can’t help thinking that it’s just an arrogant desire of the chefs not to have to pander to their customers’ ‘whims’. Ridiculous attitude… Thanks for your support 🙂

      Reply
      1. raibaker

        Yeah, I think you are right. I also found a lot of the comments on the Telegraph pretty disturbing. There are huge misconceptions about allergy, intolerance, anaphylaxis… it is not a lifestyle choice, or a whim or someone being fussy about food… some people annoyingly choose to use those words to add weight or be fashionable or?? when describing their lifestyle choice – like one lady who told me her children were allergic too; to chocolate
        but only during the week!?!?
        bravo for writing such a succinct and good piece. peace to you x

  6. Nicola Young

    I saw this too and it’s disgusting. It’s about time they woke up to themselves and realised that this is a real issue and not an irritation. If they call themselves creative people, they should use that to create dishes that are safe. It’s bad enough eating out when you have food intolerance to consider, let alone life threatening allergies and I’ve just written a post of a similar vain today. I want to highlight to restaurants and cafes that it’s about time they acknowledged people with allergies and intolerances: http://www.afreefromlife.com/2015/03/25/what-is-it-like-to-be-gluten-dairy-intolerant/

    I will be sharing this post on my social media.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Nuts on airplanes: what’s the big deal? | Sophie is…

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