Fans of the last series of Celebrity Masterchef will have seen Wayne Sleep and Christopher Biggins getting stressed by the challenge of making afternoon tea for members of the Women’s Institute. But imagine what their stress levels would have been like if the ladies of the WI had demanded to know whether their hand-crafted vol au vents and macaroons were dairy- and gluten-free…
From December 13 diners will be able to ask restaurant staff whether any of the 14 key allergens (gluten, egg, nuts, soya, milk, celery, crustaceans, mustard, peanuts, fish, molluscs, sesame, lupin, sulphur dioxide) are contained in the food on their plates and the staff will need to be able to tell them – by law. It’s called the Food Information Regulation (FIR) and it covers all foodservice establishments – from the Michelin-starred to the high-street chippie.
Many chefs, restaurateurs and foodservice providers are blissfully unaware of the impending explosion this will cause to their lives, according to celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson. He’s calling for a campaign to raise awareness because he believes most will probably “wing it” – until the first prosecution wakes them up.
“Our sector’s notoriously lazy at coming to terms with new laws,” he told me. “I was talking to the owner of a famous restaurant in the south west of England who said, ‘Sh*t, is that actually happening?’”
So who’s going to tell them?
The government should, says Worrall Thompson. “They bring in new laws and don’t consider the policing needs. They must help the restaurants not attack them.”
He is calling for a campaign to raise awareness from the press and the authorities.
“The government should be sending out a booklet to make the public and the trade aware of the law. It will creep up on us, because it’s only four, five months away.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of the implications. It will affect the independents hard. Chains have set recipes for chefs to follow so it’s easier for them as they work in a more formulaic way.
“But imagine a busy independent restaurant with several chefs working shifts. One chef might thicken his sauce with a spoonful of flour or butter. Then the next chef might start his shift and use the same sauce or the same spoon, which could cause problems.”
This is what happened to 12-year-old Connor Donaldson from Wigan, who died last year after suffering an asthma attack triggered by eating a Prawn Balti.
Investigations revealed the Tyldesley Tandoori takeaway near his home used the same spoon for a sauce that was free-from and one that contained nuts. The takeaway was also found to be using almond powder with 50% peanut powder as its suppliers supplemented the ingredient with a cheaper nut.
In a small and busy kitchen it’s easy for cross-contamination to occur and chefs and front-of-house staff don’t always know which products are potential killers.
As patron of the Free From Eating Out Awards, Worrall Thompson is training his kitchen and front of house staff to raise their awareness of free-from food safety issues and the impact of the regulation. Can you imagine your local takeaway doing the same?