How Serious are Food Allergies?

It’s a simple question, but it must be addressed:

Our society has a tendency to frown upon inconvenience and often fails to cater for the needs of marginalised groups, including those suffering from food intolerances and allergies. This begs the question, are they serious or can we just ignore them?

The attitudes taken by some catering outlets suggests that food allergies are an inconvenience and that there is no need to manage operations in a way to ensure that allergen information is highlighted. Recent stories reiterate the problems facing those suffering with dietary requirements including intolerances and allergies. It is estimated that around two million people are living with a diagnosed food allergy in the United Kingdom.

However, this estimate does not include the number of individuals with food intolerances or coeliac disease, hence the actual figure of those requiring specific labelling is far higher than this figure suggests. It seems that the actual figure of those with requirements is often undermined and these figures offer no indication of those without a formal diagnosis. It is often a difficult process to be formally diagnosed, with individuals in the East of England often having to travel to Cambridge to be assessed by specialists at Addenbrookes Hospital.

Fresh produce is often the main issue for those suffering with allergies and intolerances, as there is often limited information regarding ingredients. For example, Tesco offers a diverse range of freshly baked pastries in-store but fail to provide an easily accessible list of ingredients. Other supermarkets commit the same form of neglect and often by-pass criticism by having a sign notifying customers that allergy information can be accessed upon request – which is easy, right? Sadly not, as it is often difficult to find a member of staff in the relevant department to provide this information to customers. It seems that these signs often serve the purpose of avoiding liability – in a similar way to some ‘may contain’ notices on food packaging.

Campaigns for greater awareness and for legislative action are often ignored, as there is a fundamental lack of education surrounding the requirements of those with intolerances and allergies. It often takes a tragedy to inspire real legislative change which is a condemnation of our society. These issues have been ongoing for decades and are not recent – as has suggested by media coverage of recent issues with British Airways and Pret following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse.

My own experience from last year:

I have personally been misled by packaging at an outlet at my former university in the East of England. It stated the ingredients, but to my surprise the actual content did not match the listed content. I was initially treated in a way that suggested it was not a big issue and that changing the labels in future would fully resolve the situation. It seems that staff lacked an insight into the consequence of food allergies. One bite could have led to an allergic reaction, although unlikely to be fatal it would have been uncomfortable and would have required urgent medical attention. I urged staff to withdraw all contaminated produce and examine the root causes of this issue. It seemed that, after campaigning and a near fatal incident with another individual, staff were open to a thorough review of fresh items.

So, what is it like to have an allergic reaction?

Well, the severity of a reaction varies from person to person with some only experiencing mild symptoms that require little attention. However, others can be subjected to excruciating pain which requires medicinal relief or a trip to a local A&E. It is not a pleasant experience and the truth of the matter is that allergic reactions are avoidable. If someone is suffering from a reaction, then it is always best to dial 999. Complications can only be avoided if all those in the supply chain fulfil their moral obligations. Is it hard to list all ingredients and to notify consumers of potential dangers? I feel that this issue has been neglected for too long and that there is a simple solution to all these cases – I hope that real legislative changes occur, and that justice is served to all those victims of neglect and institutional oversight.