food to go deli customer shopper

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Mystery shoppers employed by Serve Legal will be deployed to food businesses across the UK and Ireland

A new service to help retailers and high street food-to-go operators monitor and improve the experience of allergy sufferers has been launched today.

Food safety consultancy NT Assure and compliance auditor Serve Legal have collaborated to develop the ‘Customer Experience Allergen Audit’, with trials already underway at the likes of Scotmid Co-operative and pub group Mitchells & Butlers.

Mystery shoppers employed by Serve Legal will be deployed to food businesses across the UK and Ireland that sign up to the service, to measure how customers with allergies and dietary conditions are treated when eating out.

Posing as allergy sufferers, Serve Legal auditors, who are all aged between 18 and 25 years old, will present as diners or food-to-go customers. They will ask staff questions about food preparation, ingredients and cross-contamination and will order and eat a meal or food-to-go item. They will also observe hygiene ratings, the display of allergy information, table and seating cleaning practices, and will report back to the retailer on the customer experience throughout.

It is designed to reduce risk, keep customers safe and improve their dining or food-to-go eating experience, said Serve Legal director Ed Heaver.

The new service comes in the wake of several deaths in the foodservice industry in recent years. Pret a Manger launched an Allergy Plan, which included reformulating products, removing allergens and rolling out full ingredient labelling following the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who collapsed after eating a Pret baguette in 2016. Teenager Owen Carey, who had a dairy allergy, also died in 2017 after eating a chicken burger marinated in buttermilk at a Byron branch in London.

In September this year, parliament laid down ‘Natasha’s Law’, which will require food businesses to include full ingredients labelling on pre-packed for direct sale foods when it comes into force in October 2021.

“Recent events and the rising incidence of food allergies mean that every foodservice business should be reviewing its policies and practices around allergens,” Heaver added. “The Customer Experience Allergen Audit will provide invaluable insight to help operators improve performance and customer interaction, bringing them in line with new legislation around ingredient labelling.”

Tim Betts, CEO and founder of NT Assure, said: “This new audit provides operators with multiple opportunities to find out what’s working well and amplify it, and to identify what’s not working and change it for the better. It demonstrates responsible retailing, supports best hygiene ratings and improves operational performance.”

In a 2018 survey of 2,500 young allergy sufferers by the FSA, 64% of respondents said they had avoided eating out in the previous six months because of their condition and 47% said they had little or no confidence that food businesses can provide correct information about allergens in the food they serve.

Serve Legal and NT Assure added they had identified five warning signs that indicate that food operators should review their practices around allergens:

• Miscommunication between staff and diners/customers that leads to allergen complaints

• Staff are inconsistent with their response when asked by customers about allergens

• Printed and online allergen information for customers is out of date and/or inaccurate

• Cross-contamination occurs during food preparation and service, for example, using the same utensils or equipment for different food types

• Staff are giving uninformed advice on allergens when chatting with customers