Food allergies - Who is really responsible?

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Food allergies - Who is really responsible?

A funny thing happened to me on the way to a bushfire and ever since I have been allergic. My view on Food alergies

In 2008 during the black Saturday bushfire crisis, I volunteered to deliver meals to a local community centre set up to feed a few hundred fire fighters coming in shifts and all in need of something nourishing. The situation looked grim across Victoria and everyone was trying to assist in any way possible.

To respond to the emergency, the food had been hastily prepared but safely produced, quickly cooled and vacuum-packed early in the morning. Its temperature was carefully checked and dated as we packed the individual sealed bags filled with pasta and bolognaise sauce.

As a precaution, ice was added to keep the food at a safe temperature during the 1.5 hours journey from Holmesglen Institute to the Community Centre.

Arriving with my precious cargo in tightly sealed commercial-sized esky containers, I was confronted by an environmental health surveyor. Aware that the food had been responsibly handled and safely transported, I was confident that it would pass any inspection.

First, out came the thermometer and as expected food temperatures were well within acceptable limits.

Eager and ready to unload, I was then informed that the delivery could not be accepted because “there wasn’t a nutritional information label on the packages and some people may be allergic to their contents”.

There are times in one’s career when screaming and profane expressions that fit a situation seem totally inadequate. But keeping my cool (which climatically on the day was not easy), I explained the urgency of the situation and that we would advise the people who were serving of the basic ingredients as a precaution in the event that anyone asked.

The decision appeared literally touch and go as we increased the level of our discussions, until finally commonsense prevailed. But this was only after we debated the likelihood that anyone with an allergy would naturally inquire about the content of the meal, that the servers would be made aware of the basic ingredients, that a label on the packet would not be seen by the consumer anyway and I had made assurances that the next delivery would contain a nutritional information label on each packet.

Instead of respecting his knowledge and understanding his role in the crisis (he had simply to say “please inform servers of the ingredients so that anyone who asks can be made aware of any potential issue”) I conversely left the scene with nothing but contempt for his power-hungry attitude and attempt to justify his existence in a situation that called for sensible flexibility and reasonable rationale.

This event more than any other made me aware that chefs cannot be responsible for others who have an allergy problem and that individuals must take responsibility for their own wellbeing, crisis or not.

Obviously chefs and the restaurant staff need to be aware that certain foods or their by-products can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Research shows that 90 per cent of allergic reactions occur from the following foods and in rare cases these allergic reactions can be extremely severe and even life-threatening: cereals containing gluten, shellfish and their products, egg and egg products, fish and fish products, milk and milk products, peanuts and tree other nuts such as almonds, cashews, walnuts, Soybeans, and their products.

Of course chefs need to be aware of the basic ingredients in their dishes and the potential dangers of allergies caused by them. However it has to be the diner who must take primary responsibility for their own personal circumstances and wellbeing by informing the wait staff about their allergies, particularly when ordering, and who should enquire if a dish contains a potentially harmful ingredient.

Obviously also there is some collective responsibility. The wait staff must take food allergy comments seriously and should never guess the ingredients of a dish or dismiss the comment as trivia.

They must check with the chef. Just as the idiom “When in doubt throw it out” applies to food storage, in food allergies “a wise chef will always be cautious” and if in doubt always advise a known safe alternative.

The short descriptive way modern menu items are expressed more than adequately provides the opportunity for chefs to discreetly identify major potentially harmful ingredients.

There is a limit on the allergen information that can be identified on a menu and chefs cannot be expected to specify every ingredient that can potentially cause an allergic reaction. Imagine a menu that requires complete nutritional information:

“Fresh Garden Salad tossed with French dressing”. Please be aware this salad contains garden greens that have been grown with the following nutrients: mineral salts, gravel mix, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium. Our extra virgin olive oil contains a triglyceride composition made up of monounsaturated fats, oleic acid and polyunsaturated fats with some traces of tocopherols and polyphenols. Our balsamic vinegar includes glucose and fructose and organic acids: mainly acetic, gluconic, malic, tartaric and succinic acids, and may contain traces of polyphenols. All this is combined by our chefs to give you our house-made basic salad dressing