Author, food safety guru and allergy sufferer, Heather Landex, gives her unique take on this major change about to hit the hospitality and catering industries
Heather is a food safety expert who has just launched her book aimed at increasing awareness of the implications – and opportunity – surrounding Natasha’s Law within the food service industry.
And she welcomed the efforts of firms like Elliott’s, to help businesses get into line with the new requirements. Aware of this development for some time, our experienced team work with clients to assess their food preparation processes, and advise on changes they need to make to their kitchens and service infrastructure to ensure compliance, as well as providing labelling solutions like DateCodeGenie® to help them better communicate food contents to their customers.]
This new piece of legislation will be introduced in October, and will place increased onus on all businesses serving food – including takeaway outlets – to fully inform customers about the contents of every dish.
Its aim is to protect allergy sufferers from potential severe illness or even death, and indeed the new rules are named after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after eating a sandwich from the Prêt à Manger café chain at Heathrow Airport, not realising that it contained traces of sesame seeds, which she was allergic to, because the packaging, at that time, did not require allergens to be listed. She became ill with an anaphylactic reaction on her British Airways flight to Nice and died later that day, despite use of two epipens.
Sadly, there have been other, high-profile cases since, including that of Owen Carey, who died soon after eating grilled chicken during an 18th birthday outing to Byron Burger in London, in 2017, not realising it had been marinated in buttermilk, when he had a severe milk allergy. You can read more background about Natasha’s Law, what it means for the hospitality industry and some of the solutions we offer to help businesses comply, in our other recent blog.
Heather, originally from Hull and now living in Denmark, has a unique take on the subject – in her book Inclusive: The New Exclusive, available now on Amazon, she argues the case for the opportunity that comes hand-in-hand with compliance but is often overlooked – ‘inclusivity’. Her argument is that, while outlets might currently be feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the new law, if they look beyond this, there is a significant commercial opportunity to be grasped. Heather kindly agreed to share some of her insights, to further inform Elliott’s many catering and HORECA clients, and encourage them to take heart.
She said: “Many people in the food service industry believe that less than one in 1,000 people has a serious food allergy, which is possibly true of the more dangerous anaphylactic cases. However, closer to one in 10 people has a food allergy or intolerance. Food businesses are afraid of providing for this larger segment, though, because they don’t see it’s real size and gradient. They are afraid of attracting people with potentially anaphylactic allergies and in their minds, increasing their risk and liability.
“Unfortunately, though, this means they could be turning away 10 per cent of their potential customers, plus whoever would have dined with them, when there are ways of providing for them in a compliant manner, with a little more understanding and effort.”
She adds: “Those willing to accept this challenge will gain a vital competitive edge as they seek to rebuild from the impacts of COVID-19 lockdown closures. Guaranteeing safety for normally-excluded customers will gain their confidence and create a very loyal following of repeat customers, plus whoever they bring along with them. Hence the title of my book – which helps them become more exclusive and sought-after, by being more inclusive.”
Heather, highly qualified in all aspects of food safety, has worked with the world’s largest food safety and safety compliance companied, with involvement in everythin from the Olympic Games, to the world’s largest chain restaurant brands and Michelin-starred eateries. So, she understands what’s expected of cafes, restaurants, pubs and the whole range of caterers, from the ‘other side of the fence’. She specialises, increasingly, in allergy and dietary preferences, including compliance, customers service and marketing around them.
View from the inside
Not only that, but she’s experienced, firsthand, how dangerous non-compliance can be. Heather opens her book by describing her own, near-death allergic experience, after staying in a hotel on one of her many inter-continental work trips.
Despite her food industry expertise, and her knowledge of safe hygiene practices in particular, Heather had no idea she was severely allergic to anything. Lifelong hayfever was the only indicator. Her personal experience of just how serious this can be, came in August 2019.
“I was in an ambulance on my way to hospital, wondering if I was about to die from suspected anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction,” she recounted.
“I had woken up feeling tingly, my lips and eyes were puffy and a severe rash had appeared on my chest. I called the emergency medical hotline and was surprised when they advised me to get to hospital.
“Suddenly, my lips, hands and feet felt numb, I became wheezy and my hands and nails had gone bone white. The hotel receptionist called for an ambulance and, once in it, knowing from my training the symptoms of anaphylactic shock, I texted my husband a final goodbye and ‘I love you’.
“He was a plane flight away with two small kids, no childcare and no ability to get to me – I was terrified.”
Fortunately, immunosuppressants and antihistamines brought Heather back from utter despair and panic relatively swiftly. However, she didn’t feel safe to eat, had to learn how to shop, cook again, and calm her anxiety around food. It wasn’t until she was able to see an allergy specialist, after four months on a waiting list, that severe lactose intolerance was identified amongst other, rather complex, potential allergy culprits. The experience gave Heather a first-hand insight into the anxieties allergy sufferers face in daily life.
A fresh perspective
And this experience has underlined her belief that venues are also missing a commercial trick, by rejecting the growing minority of people who have food preferences and are interested in allergy information, either because of allergies and intolerances, or for lifestyle, religious or environmental reasons.
According to the Food Standards Agency, 60 per cent of allergy sufferers currently avoid eating out because they don’t have confidence that food establishments are safe.
The Heather makes is: “Many people, wrongly, assume that these new rules are a disproportionate challenge and inconvenience designed to safeguard an extreme minority of people, who are often perceived to be awkward or overly sensitive.
“However, in reality, instances of allergies are growing and some of our seemingly most innocuous foodstuffs – like milk – are potentially our biggest killers.
“Businesses simply cannot afford not to gain a thorough understanding of this issue. By not doing so, they are potentially putting people’s lives – and their own businesses and livelihoods – at risk by exposing themselves to the threat of injuring someone and exposing themselves to significant fines and prosecution.”
But there is considerable potential opportunity here, she adds: “There are increasing numbers of people who want to opt out of eating animal-based products, for personal health reasons, ethics, or because of the increasing evidence that this is better for the environment. Not only that, but a high proportion of people choose not to eat certain animal products for religious reasons, too.
“A lot of outlets, sadly, opt for the ‘may contain’ caveat in their food labelling or on menus because they are struggling to get their heads round more detailed requirements, or because they are fearful of potential litigation and think this protects them. However, in reality, this isn’t really enough of a defence, they still have to be able to provide information about allergens and ingredients. It is better protection to be able to demonstrate that they are competentand transparent, and, should an issue arise, demonstrate a due diligence defense (a legal defence against accusations of negligence).
“However, they can also differentiate themselves from their competition and attract more customers by going out of their way to re-think how they prepare their food, in order to offer at least some adapted options for people who can’t or won’t eat certain things. This includes labelling their food’s contents more specifically, communicating this more openly and effectively and educating their staff to understand and care about this issue, and be able to explain things to customers properly. By doing so,, they will potentially attract significantly more customers.
“This is because everyone this applies to might have, say, at least 100 friends, family, schoolmates or colleagues who want to be able to socialise with them in a place where they are comfortable and safe. By making that possible, they are likely to select one outlet over another, based on the inclusive service it offers.
“Not only that but, morally, it’s about recognising that everyone has the right to be included and the right not to eat something they would rather, or must, avoid. In reality, many people with food-related issues or preferences end up avoiding going out for fear of being treated unkindly, not being able to eat anything, or, worst-case scenario, being served something inappropriate and potentially dangerous.
Heather had these suggestions for businesses like Elliott’s clients, for not just ensuring compliance with Natasha’s Law, but also maximising its potential when it comes to reaching more would-be customers.
It’s important to shift your attitude to these regulations, to really implement them effectively, and recognise that serving an allergen to someone is just as bad as giving them food poisoning. This is as important as the food safety standards organisations are used to and, equally, designed to save lives, injury and harm. It is also needed to avoid complaints and bad press, and remain competitive. This issue will undoubtedly have crept up on some, but not complying is not an option, and allergies affect more people than you might think – at least one in four households shop in the free-from aisle at supermarkets, and that number is growing. Getting onboard now will help outlets make headway on their competitors and ultimately avoid being left behind when serving dietary preferences becomes the norm.
No-one should be fooled into thinking it’s extremely unlikely anything could happen to their business, too. It’s actually extremely likely, and even if someone’s intolerance isn’t life-threatening, it could make them extremely uncomfortable, ill or cause harm in other ways. For someone with an allergy, it’s like having a hidden disability. You wouldn’t ask a person with another form of disability to declare it openly, or wear a sign warning everyone of their situation, because that would be considered discriminatory. And the same is true of allergy sufferers. They often don’t want to make a fuss and the onus shouldn’t be on them to announce the details of their health condition or personal beliefs – it is on caterers to disclose what’s in their food and answer questions about ingredients, so that customers can have options and make choices without fuss.
I’d recommend over-communicating allergy-related information, making it easy to filter or understand and also stating if items are ‘animal-free’, or have particular ethical credentials. Disclaimers like ‘may contain’ or ‘traces of’ on food just aren’t enough to enable anyone to make properly-informed choices.
Offering to prepare vegan and allergy-friendly versions of at least some items on your menu or product list is a real step in the right direction – rather than being tempted to hide behind the ‘may contain’ disclaimer. This wil ensure you appeal to the vegan audience who choose not to eat food that contains, or has been prepared with, animal products, including dairy items and even things like honey, which you might not at first consider to be an ‘animal’ product.
It will also attract and protect people who can’t consume milk. It’s not widely known that 23 per cent of people avoid eating food that either contains, or has been prepared with, milk. It is also the biggest killer, allergy-wise – something not many people realise, given the high profile given to peanut and shellfish-related anaphylactic shoc
You could start by educating yourself and your staff, and then advertising a small selection of menu items that you can prepare without contamination by allergens such as milk, as well as animal-derived products, thereby making vegan-friendly options also allergy-friendly (for the expected allergens – and honey). The same applies to offering gluten-free alternatives for things like bread and pasta. Trust me, you’ll be surprised how many customers with a range of needs and preferences will appreciate this relatively small but significant step – and I guarantee that if you advertise or simply communicate this offering effectively, you’ll bring in extra business as a result.
Don’t overlook the marketing opportunity! The growing number of people with allergies and food preferences, means you could increase your customer base by more than 10 per cent by maximising your compliance and committing to offering some vegan, allergy and dietary preference-friendly options. It starts with just identifying a few dishes that you can prepare or adapt in an allergy- safe manner.
You could actually look on allergies as a form of disability, and turning away people who have them is a form of discrimination that’s best avoided. Veganism is also a characteristic covered by the Equality Act 2010 (since 2020).
Do your research and make sure you truly know your customers’ needs when they have an allergy or other dietary preference. There are 14 legally-identified allergens and it’s vital that – as someone responsible for catering for members of the public – you understand labelling and terminology. For example, many people confuse lactose and milk, which could be a critical if not deadly mistake. And, as mentioned above, surprisingly perhaps, milk is one of the most dangerous and common of all allergens in the list.
It’s also important to understand the safety controls around allergens, in order to ensure that your ingredients, storage and food preparation processes are safe and compliant. For example, with some allergens – like peanuts – simply touching them, or something that has been in contact with them, can be deadly for some people. You have to be aware of dust, residues and contact with equipment.
Natasha’s Law is all about collating and labelling your ingredients. So, if you’re having to do that anyway, why not also take the opportunity to review your whole customer service offering? It’s important not to be blinded by the liability and complexity. There is no way around it, you have to learn it.
However, if you can look at it from a different perspective, it really is possible to turn it into an opportunity as well.
A serious business
Heather had this important, parting message about outlets’ obligations under Natasha’s Law: “Business owners have absolute responsibility for the safety of their customers, and are 100 per cent liable for anything that happens on their premises. The fine for hurting someone through incompetent food preparation is unlimited and, therefore, you need to aim for a zero-risk environment and ensure your due diligence, whether you choose to serve all people, or not.
“If something happens but you’ve gone over and above to safeguard your customers, you’re unlikely to be prosecuted.
“You’ll also be able to enjoy the good will – and hopefully the increased revenue too – from including a group of people who, for too long, have been largely left out, not considered and, as a result, suffer significant anxiety and are left excluded from partaking of the simple pleasures in life that the rest of us enjoy.
“Not only that, but if someone’s in a social situation and feels embarrassed to put everyone else out by highlighting the fact they don’t understand from your menu what they can eat or – worse still – there’s no information for them, they are more likely to take risks and that, in turn, could put your business at greater risk of allergy incidence too.”
Our Sales & Marketing Executive, Chris Elliott, added: “We’re acutely aware, At Elliott’s, just how important the implementation of Natasha’s Law is for the kinds of businesses we work with, and we’re keen to do everything possible to help educate them about the necessities around this and how they can achieve them.
“As part of this process, we’re very grateful to Heather, with whom we share a home city, for supporting our efforts with such rich and personal insights into the new requirements, but also for sharing some inspirational thoughts about the potential that exists here.
“We know how overwhelming it can feel, at the moment, for already-beleaguered catering businesses to now carry out the work required to ensure they are ready for October’s changes.
“We’re already pulling out all the stops to raise awareness and supply solutions like DateCodeGenie® which can help businesses supply the maximum detail in their food labelling with ease. “However, if we can also, with Heather’s input, provide them with hope that all the hard work they’re doing will not only protect their businesses, but potentially help them grow too, then we’ll consider that a job well done.”
If you could do with some expert input to help you prepare for the introduction of Natasha’s Law, email our friendly, experienced team or call 01482 327580
You can discover more about Heather and her work via her website.