Recent stories surrounding the tragic deaths of customers at Pret and Byron, and some very near misses at other restaurant chains including McDonald’s, have made for difficult reading, writes Mike Berry.
Ultimately, a sense pervades that there is still too much risk in UK eating out – for those that require special care and attention due to allergies, and the associated fatal risk of anaphylactic shock that they carry with them every day of their lives.
As such, there is a clamour for new laws. This spectre hangs over the eating-out market, and against the backdrop of an achingly tough market already presenting too many challenges, it feels like operators must end up shouldering more responsibility.
Already, ‘Natasha’s law’ will (from 2021) oblige food businesses to include full labelling on all pre-packaged food – after 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died when she ate a Pret-a-Manger baguette that contained sesame seeds. There are now calls for laws to cover eating out after Owen Carey died in similar circumstances after unwittingly eating Byron Burger’s (unlabelled) buttermilk-marinated chicken.
The current law requires restaurants, pubs, cafes and other out-of-home food places to provide allergen information on request, which in the main is done either via written information or verbally through staff members. This (clearly) relies on guests asking for information or restaurant teams giving it, with allergens information often at best not that obvious and at worst completely absent from menus.
Up until now, the industry stance on this increasingly fraught and emotive issue has been that the best way to prevent further tragedies is through better staff training. There is concern among operators that any alternative would see menus overloaded with information, penalising outlets that changed menus daily, particularly small independents, which would struggle to comply and incur additional costs.
That said, the current situation relies on a system which is, essentially, a verbal one, and therefore reliant on human intervention – and as such, is flawed and inadequate.
Byron chief executive Simon Wilkinson recently described it, in so many words, as not being fit for purpose: “It’s clear current rules and requirements are not enough and the industry needs to do more – more to help customers with allergies and more to raise awareness of the risks of allergies.”
He’s right and things must change. And that’s the rub. In an extremely tough market and in an industry where margins are too often paper-thin, it feels like more legislation and cost is coming. But, without wanting to be overly dramatic, no one should ever go out to eat and not make it home.
The industry has choice. It can grasp a reputational opportunity, move towards the issue and drive solutions to keep allergen sufferers safer. Or, it can wait for legislation, in whatever form that may take, and risk falling on the wrong side of public sentiment in this debate.
Mike Berry is FSC’s Head of Content