Oct/Nov 08 – May Contain Nuts


Rob Rees asks:

Should we label food more clearly for allergens? Should eateries be trained in giving adrenalin? Have we just turned into hypochondriacs?

Imagine the scene on a busy Saturday night at one of my restaurants  – a packed dining room full of guests. The kitchen is a buzz. Then one of my waiting staff enlightens me to the fact that one of the customers is finding it hard to breath. “Should we call an ambulance?” Don’t panic was the thought. Phone 999 and in the meantime don’t forget to keep the other guests happy.

Almost instantly the lady had symptoms of tingling in her tongue and a rash on her skin, her breathing was becoming difficult and as her blood pressure started to drop there was danger of her experiencing unconsciousness and a fall blown anaphylactic shock.

But enough about her for now…

Food Allergy in the UK is an increasingly growing problem. Along with other allergic problems such as asthma and eczema food intolerance cases are increasing. But there may be a bit of a worry culture here in Britain with almost 30% of the population actually believing they suffer from an allergy. The reality of the figures though is that perhaps 5 – 8% of children and 1 – 2 % of adults are serious food allergy sufferers. It is thought that 10 people per year die from anaphylactic shock.

The mismatch figures are best explained by the fact that allergy and intolerance are different. A full-blown allergy will attack our human immune system causing a serious chemical reaction in our bodies. An intolerance, whilst often very unpleasant and alarming, will not affect your immune system. Of course there may be stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea and feverish temperatures but it is not anaphylaxis. These sufferers are having a very unpleasant aversion to a particular ingredient. To be more specific it is an allergen in a food that is causing the problem for anaphylaxis sufferers.

The most likely suspects that contain such allergens are peanuts, milk, eggs, fish, nuts, sesame seeds and shellfish. That doesn’t rule out others though like watermelon, kiwi fruit, orange, lactose, various additives and all kinds of other products that may contain a combination of allergens.

So what can be done about it?

There are a number of things that we all have to do.

  • Sufferers themselves need to be aware and let friends, family and when eating out caterers know.
  • Your eating experience need not be spoilt as long as those cooking for you are informed and also the food that you buy is correctly labelled so that you are not limited to your selection or put at any greater risk.

‘May contain nuts’ doesn’t really go far enough does it?

  • Industry needs to either say it does or it doesn’t. I spent a day going shopping with a lady called Hazel Gowland from the Anaphylaxis Society and was appalled as to the limitations and dangers that lurked in the supermarket commercial wilderness. To be fair many are starting to improve their production systems, but more needs to happen and faster. It is actually really pleasing to see that at Gloucestershire Farmers Markets product diversity is including gluten free sausages, diabetic chutneys and other growing consumer product needs. Many of those who have such a problem will ware a bracelet stating their particular allergen nasty – this is so that medics will know how to appropriately deal with them.
  • If somebody asks you if a particular dish contains a certain ingredient – don’t blag it, find out the truth. The customer or friend really won’t mind waiting if you do it in the appropriate manner – you may be saving someone’s life.
  • Young people and young adults who suffer need to inform their friends. That late night Chinese takeaway after a club session could cause a problem with all the nuts and satay sauce. Just don’t take the risk. You will still be cool and you are not alone. Schools are more geared up to the problem than ever before, but if in doubt mention it to the teachers and make sure that a policy is documented.

As for my lady guest her special occasion did turn into a nightmare but the great work of the ambulances saved her. She didn’t know she was a sufferer, which proves for some it can have an onset at any stage in life. Adrenalin was administered and as quick as the shock arrived it began to recede and a nighttime stay in casualty monitored her recovery. I made it my problem in those early days of my career as I do now to question clients if they have dietary needs and I clearly label my menus and monitor my processing systems in my kitchens. It’s routine and should be for others in the catering and food-manufacturing sector. They need to make it their problem.

What do you think?