Typically, planning any kind of travel when you have food allergies is a challenge. There are many unknowns: Will I be able to eat safely at this destination? Will I feel comfortable dining out with food allergies? What kind of food will I be able to eat (and is it anything I want to eat)?
These unknowns can cause stress and anxiety, and may limit the places that seem like safe vacation destinations.
It was therefore somewhat of a shock when I recently traveled to London on my first international trip since the pandemic began. Over the last few years, the U.K. has made big strides in how it regulates food allergy information.
The very first restaurant I went to in London had on its menu a simple legend identifying which dishes contained top allergens like peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, soy, etc.
This is something I rarely encounter in my daily life in Canada or the U.S. Yet, as a person with peanut and tree nut allergies, I found this relatively simple addition makes a world of difference. Many servers do not relay food allergies to the kitchen properly, or they may assume a dish does not contain allergens when it does. Having a legend helps the customer and serves as a reminder to the staff.
There are laws in the U.K. (as well as in Europe) that require restaurants to make allergen information available, either directly on menus or through signage where a server can then explain verbally. These are the rules I experienced in action on my London trip.
Dining Out with Food Allergies
It was a revelation to find allergens were clearly labeled everywhere I went. Restaurants, bakeries, takeaway counters, coffee shops, ice cream parlors – almost any place serving food. Not only that, but at almost every restaurant I ate at, the server asked if there were any food allergies to be aware of – before I mentioned mine!
Upon disclosing my food allergies at an ice cream parlor one evening, I was delighted to discover that the staff had clearly been trained on how to handle a customer with food allergies. I ordered an ice cream that was labeled nut-free. The employee went to the back with a clean scoop, took out a new container of ice cream that had not been cross-contaminated, and scooped my ice cream. I didn’t even have to ask for this!
It was efficient, easy, and made me feel more comfortable. Above all, it showed me what life could be like for people with food allergies in North America if we had comprehensive food allergy legislation that required food service establishments to adhere to clear rules regarding food allergy management.
These food allergies laws are a result of a regulation first introduced in the European Union and adopted in the U.K. Restaurants in Britain are required to inform customers of allergens, either verbally or in writing. Diners must have access to information regarding the top 14 allergens, which include, and extend beyond, the U.S. top nine.
There are also rules applying to buffets and delivery/takeaway food. Restaurants providing food delivery must provide allergen information both before the purchase and when the food is delivered. This means both on the menu – which could be online or on an app – and when delivered.
For instance, the delivered food is marked with a sticker or in writing as being allergen-safe. Food service staff must also receive food allergy training, which could be through the government’s free, online food allergen training.
U.K. Rules: Room to Improve
Part of the food allergy regulations in the U.K. sadly came about as the result of a tragedy. Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, died of an anaphylactic reaction to a baguette she bought at the airport. The teen didn’t realize the freshly pre-packaged sandwich only showed “some” ingredients. It didn’t list sesame, to which she was severely allergic.
Natasha’s parents campaigned for pre-packaged foods, made in a shop’s premises, to list all ingredients. In the summer of 2021, “Natasha’s Law” came into force. Thanks to the law, even allergic tourists like me are safer in takeaway foods shops and bakeries.
Although they are not required to communicate allergies this way, many restaurants have taken to indicating clearly on their menus which items contain any of the 14 allergens. I suspect it’s a spillover effect of Natasha’s Law, and also related to another tragedy. Restaurants in the U.K. are only required to “provide allergen information,” and that can just be verbally.
That’s a shortcoming in the current law, as it leaves room for error. Tragically, such an error resulted in the death of British teenager Owen Carey, who died after an anaphylactic reaction to buttermilk in a meal he ordered. Dairy was not listed on the menu, nor was Owen warned about it after informing the server of his allergies.
Following a coroner’s inquest, the teen’s family have launched a campaign for “Owen’s Law.” It would compel restaurants to list allergen information on their menus, removing the option of having restaurant staff provide verbal allergen information.
Lessons from the U.K.
In my opinion, Owen’s Law is overdue – not only in Britain, but also in North America. Even the current food allergy regulations in the U.K. far exceed legislation in the U.S. and Canada. It is not onerous to require restaurants to declare which items contain top allergens, or to require a minimum level of food allergy training for staff. However, with the exceptions of a few states and counties, such precautions are not required in North America. This leads to confusion and anxiety for individuals dining out with food allergies.
The food allergy legislation in the U.K. is far from perfect, as evidenced by Owen’s death. But my personal experience of dining with food allergies in London showed that better legislation is achievable in North America. We can learn from Britain’s system and experience.
This trip also showed me that the things I have always thought would make a difference for my dining out experience – actually do. This includes having restaurant staff to inquire about food allergies, so that the burden to disclose is lessened for folks with food allergies. It also includes listing food allergies on menus at bars and restaurants, and having protocols for serving individuals with food allergies.
Requiring ingredient labeling on pre-packaged foods is essential, and better labeling should also be required for food ordered through apps, since this type of ordering has proliferated.
It’s time to update food allergy legislation and recognize the real risks that people with food allergies confront on a daily basis. We shouldn’t have to wait for tragedies like Natasha and Owen to occur before real, concrete changes are made to make food safer for people with food allergies.
Now is the right time to start discussing how we can make labeling laws stronger regarding food allergies – and our neighbors across the Atlantic are giving us a great place to start.
Hannah Lank, who recently graduated from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, is a regular Allergic Living contributor.