Allergens – easy to ask about?

You may have noticed that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) have launched a campaign, in partnership with both Allergy UK and The Anaphylaxis Campaign, called Easy to ASK (#EasytoASK — Ask about allergens, Speak Up, Keep Safe), aimed at encouraging and supporting young people with food sensitivities to ask food service providers about allergens in their products and meals.

The campaign comes on the back of online research supported by the three organisations on young adults’ experiences of managing their food sensitivities, particularly in the context of eating out.

Some of the results of this work, which is based on the responses from over two and a half thousand, and which has already been publicised by the charities, makes for interesting and occasionally stark reading.


Eating out

  • 88% of respondents reported eating out or ordering takeaways / food online without support (from family, friends, RD etc).
  • Before eating out without support, 55% of these respondents reported always researching the menu, and 49% said that they always pack their medication.
  • When eating out, 59% reported a tendency to visit the same places.
  • When ordering a takeaway/food online without support, 51% always check an online menu’s allergen information, and 39% always only order specific known safe dishes.
  • Overall, 60% have avoided eating out in the last six months because of their allergy or intolerance.
  • 67% are aware of the requirement of food businesses to provide customers with information on top 14 allergens.


Risk Taking

A deeper look at the full report itself highlights other issues, mainly concerning young people’s risk-taking, which may make difficult reading for parents, especially those who’ve just seen off university and college goers.

  • 5% never tell anybody about their allergy, meaning possible increased likelihood of exposure to risks, and no immediate circle or network of support.
  • With regards to eating out, 7% report they never prepare in any way, and only 9% always contact a restaurant in advance to check on allergen information.
  • Of those who need to, 6% sometimes carry their adrenaline with them, 3% rarely and 1% never. Some say they forget, for others inconvenient, and others just don’t like to take them to places such as clubs.
  • Worryingly, only 56% *never* consume foods which may give them a reaction — the rest occasionally (17%), sometimes (15%), often (8%) and very often (4%) do so.


What can we do? 

Young people can find it difficult to talk to one another about their food sensitivities. Embarrassment, and the complexities of their conditions, are the typical reasons. Encourage them to speak to everyone, from as young an age as is practical, so it becomes second nature. And let’s similarly encourage non-allergic / non-intolerant young people to speak to their friends and peers about unspoken potential food sensitivities, especially when cooking for them or eating out with them. Students easily broach veganism and vegetarianism these days, and it should be just as comfortable to do likewise with food sensitivities. Young people need advocates — not only family, but friends and peers, both in person and online, who can support and watch out for them.


What can food service providers do?

The surveyed respondents were asked for suggestions. Some were sensible and unremarkable — over 80% asking for allergen information or symbols alongside dishes — but interestingly “72% reported that to improve the managing of their condition waiting staff could pro-actively ask if anyone on the table has a food allergy or intolerance when taking your reservation or your food order”, which strikes me as an excellent idea.

Further, much as some staff in touristy areas wear badges denoting which languages they speak, as well as their names, an ‘ask me about allergens’ badge might also encourage more conversation, perhaps?

14% of survey respondents suggested that menus should include allergen information beyond the required 14 — which I know will find favour among those who have allergies to such foods as pea, chickpea and kiwi.

Ultimately it’s about openness — train up your staff to be open, and just be transparent and forthcoming about what’s in your food.

It would be particularly good, incidentally, to see student catering establishments and schools publicise this initiative and really take the lead in making more proactive noise about food allergens …

Is there anything we can do to encourage them?


Further information

Food Standards Agency’s Young People and Food Allergies and Intolerances

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