Eating out

What is the current situation with regard to food sold in a catering setting?

Eating out is now a large part of life. Many people eat out every day, at school or college, business lunches, birthday celebrations, snacks at the holiday airport or train station buffet. 

There are many kinds of food outlets from five star restaurants to hot dog stands and everything in between including sandwich bars, work canteens, fast food restaurants, functional catering, market stalls, supermarket deli counters, catering in institutions like hospitals and catering by childminders and child care organisations. 

Unlike a pre-packed food product produced in a factory, these foods are not subject to the specific requirements of the current labelling legislation. Therefore, the ‘producer’ of these foods is not obliged to label them (when did you ever see a meal served in a restaurant coming with a label detailing all the ingredients!).

That said, the current battery of food safety and hygiene legislation requires producers to sell food that is ‘safe’, i.e. will not cause ill health. To help caterers supply only safe food, they are required to have in place food safety management procedures. These can also be extended to control food allergens. In addition, the suppliers of pre-packed food ingredients to catering establishments must indicate the presence of allergens either through labelling or on the accompanying documentation.

What can the caterer do to protect their allergic customers?

As the main aim of the allergic customer is to avoid contact with the offending food allergens, every effort must be made to ensure there is no cross-contamination of one food with another, possibly allergenic, food. This can happen in a number of ways including using the same chopping board or other kitchen utensils for different foods without proper cleaning in between uses, storage of different foods in the same container without cleaning in between, etc. Hidden allergens can occur in ingredients but this should be guarded against by proper information on the ingredient label or documentation. 

How to protect yourself when eating out

There are a number of things you can do to reduce the chances of accidentally eating a food that you are allergic to when you are eating out. 

  • When booking a table at a restaurant be sure to check with the staff that you can get a meal that doesn’t contain the food you are allergic to. 
  • If possible, discuss your requirements with the chef and pre-order a suitable meal. 
  • Make sure that the chef and staff understand your requirements fully. 
  • Ask about the possibility of cross contamination - it's very important to consider whether an ingredient you are allergic could have come into contact with an ingredient used to make your meal. Be sure to make staff aware of this. 
  • Perhaps a separate meal can be pre-prepared, covered and set aside for you. When you arrive at the restaurant, make sure the waiting staff knows about your allergy and understands how serious it is. 
  • Ask whether the establishment has a policy for dealing with food allergens. This is usually a good indication of the depth of knowledge the staff will have about the issue. 
  • Remember you must also know which foods you have to avoid and the likelihood of those being used in certain dishes and bear in mind that, even if the establishment has an allergy policy and the staff have been trained, there is ALWAYS a risk of cross contamination. 

What research has safefood carried out?

In 2007, safefood carried out research to investigate Food allergy awareness among catering staff (PDF, 120KB). Environmental Health Officers from throughout the island of Ireland sampled over 300 food businesses including forecourt shops, supermarkets, kitchen bakeries, market stalls, sandwich bars, caf├ęs, delicatessens and ice cream stands. The analysis of the samples for peanut protein was carried out at the Dublin Public Analyst Laboratory.

The sampling officers reported that staff were aware of food allergies in about 90% of the food businesses sampled.  However, just one third of the serving staff were confident in recommending a suitable food product for purchasing. Furthermore, the server gave incorrect information regarding the peanut status of the food products sampled in roughly 20% of cases; worryingly, this included half of the samples that were peanut-positive.

These findings were used to a training programme for Environmental Health Officers in food allergen awareness and control. They could then cascade this knowledge to the trade during routine inspections. The training programme ran from 2007 to 2009 and included 3rd level catering lecturers as well. This two-pronged approach was designed to up-skill catering staff already in the field as well as those about to embark on a career in catering.

It is up to you to decide, based on all the facts, if you want to eat there and what you will eat there. Allergy Action has more tips for Eating out with an allergy (PDF, 50KB). Allergy UK has a variety of translation cards for help while travelling. 

Of course if you have been prescribed an adrenaline autoinjector, you should always carry this with you and you should ensure that those accompanying you know how to use it.