Raymond Blanc on allergies

Raymond Blanc says so many diners say they have food intolerances “like a fashion item” and that his restaurant is now “more like a hospital”. 

So ran a Daily Mail headline earlier this week, as the online food intolerance and allergy community collectively rolled its eyes and thought — “Here we go again …”

The DM was reporting on an interview Blanc gave in Country Life magazine, which I just bought and read, where he talks about local food, seasonality, reconnecting with nature, rediscovering lost breeds of apple etc — a lot of it is perfectly fine, perfectly standard and non-controversial fare, much of which I agree with. Not everyone has the means of supporting local initiatives such as the ones he champions, but there’s nothing wrong with calling for greater awareness of what we risk losing, nor for a Great British food revival or celebration of our gastronomic heritage. 

There’s a bit of fertiliser and pesticide chemophobia in his article — which tells me that his nostalgia for the good old days of organic hands-on food production seems to blind him to the herculanean task of generating enough tasty calories to satisfy the 8 billion mouths on the planet that need a daily feed — but other than that, he comes across as a decent enough chap who cares about food, its flavour, its provenance and its value to society and our food culture. 

It’s only at the very end of the article that he touches on food hypersensitivities, and I’ll quote it precisely:

“We have been self-destructing, but we’re starting to appreciate the cost. W’re thinking about those chemicals and putting them together with our ill health. You should see the board in my kitchen when we take orders — no milk, no flour, no lemon — it’s more like a hospital. A food intolerance has become almost a fashion item, but these are true allergies, provoked by what we eat and the environment in which we live”

From that, the Daily Mail — who have plenty of form poop-stirring on the subject of food allergies and intolerances — did their thing. 

Blanc was then invited to comment on a segment about food sensitivities on World at One (From 39:30). He talks about the challenges for any restaurant in dealing with allergies and intolerances, and seems to care about getting it right for his diners. But then he says:

“At least 60% of guests will have some form of allergy, food intolerance or things they don’t want to eat”

And immediately, in conflating two sets of people, he makes his mistake. Why are dietary preferences and dietary requirements being mentioned in the same breath in this way? It risks upsetting those with food hypersensitivities, and tells us that he doesn’t quite understand the issues nor the people who live with them well enough.

Calling it “a nightmare situation for the chef” isn’t helpful. Blaming the environment for an increase in allergies is probably accurate — our genetics haven’t changed, after all, but our environment has, so something out there is causing it, and probably several somethings. Is it pollution and heavily processed foods, as he speculates? We don’t know. But what I do know is that I want to hear from the immunologists on that matter — not from the celebrity chefs. 

Among his diners, most of the allergies he sees:

“… are real, but some of them not. Now, if you don’t have an allergy you are nobody. It is almost like a fashion item that you are wearing.”

What’s maddening about all this is that he has made these comments before, three years ago, and these too were reported in the Daily Mail.

That time, both Allergy UK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign felt moved to respond. It’s a shame he doesn’t appear to have learned from the previous fallout that addressing this subject in the media requires a good grounding in the issues and awareness of the feelings of those involved.

Does he really need to be told that people with severe food allergies and coeliac disease don’t appreciate being grouped alongside people with dietary preferences, or who make up a sensitivity to be trendy, or to lose weight? Where’s the sensitivity towards the kind of life they actually lead? 

I’ve said it before: I’ll say it again. Loose talk around the complex issue of food hypersensitivity engenders doubt and suspicion among ordinary non-free-from people that food allergies and intolerances are real. It makes lives harder. It deters people from eating out. It stigmatises. It disinsentivises people seeking a diagnosis in the first place — really one of the worst consequences.

And when Blanc talks about food allergies being caused by chemicals in farming and our lack of interest in traditional or artisanal foods in favour of junk and fast food he basically pours guilt atop parents of allergy kids who carry enough on their shoulders — enough unfair anguish that something they did might have caused their kids’ allergies. 

I do not believe Blanc wanted to do any of these things, but to me his comments seem tone deaf to the feelings of those with food allergies and intolerances, and parents of allergic and coeliac children.

Still a long way to go, then. 

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