Living with Food Allergies… why knowledge and trust are the secrets to success

I’ve been told that food allergies are fashionable, and are a fad that is being fuelled by the media and industries wishing to capitalise on this new market. As a sufferer of food allergies I can only tell you that I really wish mine were a fashion statement. My life with food allergies started in my late 20’s, when the clinical immunology department at the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham diagnosed me as having developed a variety of food allergies (namely wheat, barley, oats, kiwi, apple, hazelnut, almond, cashew and others). These vary in severity, dependent on the allergen, but are serious enough that I need to carry adrenaline with me every day. And this is the first point I’d like people to understand about those of us who live with food allergies. The potential consequences of food allergies are serious and very scary. If I were to have a severe anaphylactic reaction I could die. Dead, deceased, gone…. a fact that I have had to learn to live with every day.

It is this severe consequence of an allergic reaction which inevitability drives the behaviours of allergy suffers. I am understandably a control freak when it comes to the food I eat. I obsessively read every label and prepare most of the meals in our household, for the simple reason that to do otherwise is to trust others to understand the potential consequences of an allergic reaction. This fact makes eating out in restaurants, buying processed foods or even dinner at a friend’s house very stressful and scary. When I eat something prepared by someone else, I am literally placing my health and wellbeing in their hands, I am trusting them to have taken care and respected that my allergies aren’t a fashion statement or a choice.

This brings us neatly on to trust, the concept which forms the central theme in managing food allergies. When reading a food label or when eating in a restaurant, I am looking for information and reassurances that enables me to trust the food supplier. In supermarkets this translates to clear labelling of all ingredients which allows me to have confidence in the products I am buying. In restaurants and cafes, this means chefs and staff who are knowledgeable and who can provide reassurance with respect to ingredients and, in particular, the control of cross contamination.

Whilst most supermarkets, each in their own unique fashion, are excellent at labelling products; unfortunately the food service sector in the UK usually falls a long way short with respect to food allergy awareness. For example, I was recently in a restaurant whose menu stated that they could cater for food allergies, one of the reasons that we’d chosen to eat there. The waitress was great, but when I questioned if an item that was listed as safe for those with coeliac disease was also safe for those with wheat allergies, she just didn’t know the difference. The item on the menu was an omelette, so in all reality it probably was safe for a wheat allergy sufferer such as myself. However, the simple lack of knowledge on the part of the waitress was enough to dent my trust and resulted in me not ordering any food.

This coming December, new EU legislation will mean that restaurants and other food services will have to provide customers with information on the foods they prepare and sell, that contain allergens. As an allergy sufferer this of course is good to hear, however, its success from a safety and trust perspective, will ultimately depend on the steps the food service sector undertakes, to ensure their food operatives are competent and aware of the potentially fatal consequences providing the wrong information could have.

Post date: 28 Aug 2014

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