Ed Heaver, founder and director at compliance testing service provider Serve Legal, discusses research which found worrying gaps in hospitality and food-to-go businesses’ allergen management, and what the sector can do to improve
“Living with allergies can be challenging, especially in a world where eating out has become increasingly common. While eating out is often a matter of convenience, it can be a daunting experience for people with allergies or specific dietary needs.
The recent Allergy Awareness Week, which took place from 24 to 28 April 2023, offered an opportunity for us to talk about the confidence crisis in the UK and why food retailers need to step up their allergy game.
In March and April 2023, Serve Legal tested 100 sites across 20 restaurants and food-to-go outlets to audit allergen safety compliance which highlighted some concerning trends.
According to the report, 62% of customers did not feel confident with the allergen information provided, and at 35% of the audits, staff did not retrieve the allergen information they provided from an official source. The survey suggested that more than 68% of cases reported that staff failed to mention the important risk of cross-contamination and only one in four auditors were proactively asked if they had any allergies staff should be aware of. It is easy to see how customers with allergies can lose confidence in retailers if they cannot be assured of the safety of their food.
It is alarming that customers with allergies are not being provided with the necessary support to feel safe
It is alarming that customers with allergies are not being provided with the necessary support to feel safe when eating out. Recent news stories such as those that provoked the creation of Natasha’s Law and Owen’s Law have highlighted the reality that poor allergen compliance can lead to devastating fatalities. Businesses lose credibility with their customers when they do not seem to have allergy safety as a top priority. In fact, one of our surveys found that 87.5% of respondents would leave a restaurant or food retailer if they were not confident in the allergen information provided.
The emphasis now lies on the importance of highly engaging and well-trained staff to ensure consistency and the implementation of a robust approach to allergen safety for all customers. While the hospitality and food-to-go sector faces challenges around high staff turnover, allergen safety must be taken seriously by restaurant owners and retailers alike. Failure to do so can lead to loss of business, reputational damage, and above all, fatalities.
Working with a lot of clients in the hospitality sector, we know that hiring customer-facing staff with existing knowledge of allergen safety is often not practical, but we believe that there is a pressing need for these sectors to prioritise effective training to support their workforce to learn how to take allergies seriously, as well as to conduct independent auditing programmes to check that staff ‘on the ground’ are adequately trained to identify and inform customers of any possible risks to safety due to presence of allergens in the food they serve.
Although there have been several laws introduced to highlight allergens on food labels, there is little said about the need to have well-trained and knowledgeable staff who can proactively inquire about customers’ allergies or intolerance. This can save customers from having to volunteer their information and can also alert staff to the possibility of cross-contamination. It is vital to keep pushing forward and to remember that change starts with awareness and action.”