Why the Government needs to lay down the law
WHEN I was 12 (and much to my parents’ dismay) I turned vegetarian. It was 1985 and the veggie brigade’s brigadier generals were Morrissey, those crazy anti-vivisectionist kids, Linda McCartney (pre sausage fame) and, I suppose, the Dalai Lama.
There were no veggie food aisles, M&S was a good year or so away from launching its first vegetarian ready meals and Quorn wouldn’t hit the supermarkets until 1994.
When I went out and asked for a veggie option, I’d get pizza with holes in the topping where the pepperoni used to be. On one school trip I remember being served a plate of boiled peas and a potato as my classmates tucked into roast chicken with all the sides.
Anyway, that’s what I’m reminded of now as we navigate the path of food allergy with our son. I’m not being trite – clearly I know my vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice, not a life-threatening situation. But perhaps that’s my point: isn’t it so much more important that we get on top of this food allergy issue as soon as we can?
Yes, things are much improved today compared to just a few years ago: allergen labelling legislation only came into effect in Britain in 2004 and EU-wide one year later. But, with food allergies on the increase (up to eight per cent of children and four per cent of adults in the UK, compared to the three per cent of the population calling themselves vegetarian) we’ve a long way to go.
Last week was Food Allergy & Intolerance Week, and Allergy UK has called for all food outlets to list allergens on their menu, and for staff to receive compulsory training on issues such as cross contamination.
As the charity’s deputy chief executive Lindsay McManus told Big Hospitality: “Unfortunately there is currently no legislation for restaurants, or the hospitality industry in general when it comes to listing allergens on menus. It is down to the individual outlet. The Food Standards Agency offers a comprehensive online training module that restaurant staff can access… but this is not enforced.”
Well, now is the time to enforce it: an EU regulation on food information was passed by the European Commission last autumn, including the requirement that allergen info be extended to non prepacked foods. It comes into force in December 2014 but how each country will implement it has yet to be decided: for instance, it’s not specified whether the information will be displayed or have to be specially requested.
The last thing we want is a repeat of the current mess of allergen labelling, where many manufacturers simply cover their backs by adding the wormy proviso “may contain traces of x” instead of ensuring cross contamination simply does not happen.
It really isn’t such a radical move: nutritional info on packaging, which we barely blink at these days, has only been around since 1996. But as parent to a food allergic child I dream of the day when every food outlet – whether restaurant, deli or ice cream van – has to display clear and precise details of ingredients and potential contamination as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not surprised most people couldn’t give a stuff. I don’t believe I gave food allergy a second thought before baby turned out to have a string of the things. But when you find yourself out shopping for the ingredients for a simple homecooked dinner and can’t pick up a tub of white pepper, a box of cornflour or a packet of porridge without reading the words “May contain nuts” you’ll know what I mean. Meals out and holidays are a minefield.
The vital thing is for all hospitality staff to be properly trained, in the same way that hygiene standards are enforced. Statutory guidelines have got to be a good thing all round: the evidence suggests that most allergic reactions occur in response to non prepacked foods, and what restaurant or café wants to have caused anaphylaxis in a diner?
Simple things would make the lives of families such as ours so much easier, and hopefully less fraught with risk every time we go out. It sounds ludicrous but I’d love to take Sid to the cafe in the park and order him a baked potato without fear that the knife used to cut it open had previously been used to spread peanut butter, or slice a sesame bap, and then casually wiped clean.
It would be wonderful to order him his first 99 from the ice-cream van instead of having to foist an orange juice lolly into his reluctant little fist. It would be a joy to take him to a restaurant and let him pilfer from our plates. And, oh, to be able to leave the house without the leaden weight of tupperware packed with pre-made meals and snacks. And then there’s my husband’s desperate wish: to one day accompany our son out for a curry.