Party venue refusing to cater for allergic child: disability discrimination?

Children’s parties can be daunting events for parents of food allergic children. You might get lucky and have a trustworthy, clued up host, who happily agrees to make sure everything is safe for your child. Or you might have to prepare a replica party tea, minus allergens, for your child to take along. And if the worst comes to the worst, you can give the food part a miss altogether. But surely, when it’s YOUR child’s party, you can feel more relaxed, safe in the knowledge that you are in control of the food? Well, maybe not, if you are hiring a venue…

I read a blog post by a fellow allergy mum recently, which left me feeling terribly vexed. In short, she was investigating party venues for her son’s 3rd birthday. She asked a local museum, who offered children’s party packages, whether she could hire the space but provide her own party food. The museum’s response was that she would need “£2 million public liability insurance as well as references for 2 previous grade 1 listed venues that [she had] provided catering for”. Given this was clearly impossible, she provided the venue with some suggestions for safe foods for her child, and was met with the response that the museum could not provide catering on this occasion. (For the full story, see the post No dairy – no party? part 1 on the AllergyBabe blog.)

As well as feeling indignant at the injustice of a food allergic 3-year-old being denied a birthday party, I also wonder whether such policies could be discriminatory and open to legal challenge?

I’ve blogged in the past about whether it is possible to claim disability discrimination for a nut allergy. In short, the Equality Act 2010 (EA 2010) protects people from discrimination on the basis of certain “characteristics”, one of which is “disability”. In Wheeldon v Marstons, an employment tribunal, at a preliminary hearing, held that a chef’s severe allergy to nuts was a “disability” under the EA 2010. If this becomes settled law, businesses (as goods, facilities and service providers) could then also have a responsibility not to discriminate against someone with a severe nut allergy. In my view, this could force restaurants to “reasonably accommodate” nut allergy sufferers by providing at least one safe menu option and also, for example, make nightclubs reconsider their “no EpiPens” policies.

If a children’s party venue refuses to cater for a food allergic child, isn’t that also an example of disability discrimination? If you are “open for business”, don’t you have to be open for business to ALL? Take the example of the Christian B&B owners who turned a gay couple away from their guesthouse: if you are running a business you can’t apply discriminatory policies to pick and choose who you serve. In my view:

  • IF severe allergy is a legal “disability” under the EA 2010, then
  • A party venue that refuses to cater for a child on account of their allergies (or imposes impossible to meet criteria, having the same effect) amounts to disability discrimination.

Hopefully at some point someone will bring a test case against a restaurant/nightclub/party venue/similar and this point will be clarified for the food allergic community, so people will know the level of service they are legally entitled to expect.

I’m about to start researching venues for the Manchester Allergy Support Group children’s social event (more details to follow in the New Year). I will certainly report back as to any obstacles I come up against. However, if anyone else has encountered similar issues when trying to book a children’s party, do post a comment below – I would love to hear from you!

7 comments

  1. Louise, thanks to your post, i am researching the EA 2010, the legal terms of disability and so on in this country. Never knew how interesting legislation could be…thanks again for sharing this. IAMABIGFAN

    1. Thank you very much! So glad to hear that you found a safe (and helpful!) alternative venue for your son’s birthday. Best of luck with the research. I’m keeping an eye out for news of any further developments in the case of Wheeldon v Marstons plc [2013] Eq LR 859 – will let you know if I spot anything! Will be very interesting if it does become settled law that severe allergy is a “disability”. Louise

  2. Very interesting reading,

    I tried to book my son on a sport holiday day camp. The children spend the day at school taking part in a variety of sport run by a company (I forget which one now). As the children are there for the day, they take their own pack lunch. So I emailed the company asking about my son’s allergy just in case he had a reaction while in his care.
    Although they did not refuse to take him, they said the are not allowed to give medication under any circumstances!

    I did wonder if this was discrimination, as I obviously cannot leave my son in their “care”. After reading your article, I may take this up with the school, as it is a company they use.

  3. Hi.

    Thanks for your story we have a similar one ourselves which has left us furious.

    Our son Adam (5) was due to attend two bowling parties at AMF Bowling in Wigan on consecutive days but when we disclosed his nut allergy, they refused to serve him any food from the menu. There were no alternatives offered and no real reason for the lack of options. Their company-wide guidance states everything on the menu contains nuts which was clearly untrue. When I questioned what was contained on the ingredients of the food they serve, they read through a few items and decided it must the the oil they used which was the problem. So, I asked for the manufacturer details to find a very helpful allergy poster clearly stating none of their oils contained the 14 allergens in the EU guidance. So, on hearing this, they then decided it must be a cross contamination issue as “lots of the things we serve have allergics in them” (No, I’m not making this up!). So, they chose not to serve my son based on their sales of peanuts elsewhere in the building. The risk of cross contamination was too great and they didn’t want to put my son in any danger and were not prepared to take the risk of hospitalising anyone. Sounds reasonable enough but this, I feel was more to get me off the phone and feeling like an irresponsible parent than as an explanation of why they feel it is appropriate to establish a company policy to exclude children from parties and not offer any alternatives on a fairly basic menu.
    Now, far from making me feel better about thier level of concern, this got me thinking about their food hygeine. They were so concerned with cross contamination in their kitchen that they wouldn’t entertain the idea of making him anything. They wouldn’t prepare anything fresh specifically for my son but we were allowed to bring in any food we liked which, they helpfully explained they would store, heat up and serve with the other food.
    After hearing this kitchen was so dangerous and so chock-full of potentially life threatening crumbs I declined the offer. If the kitchen wasn’t safe enough to make a sandwich, why or how could it be safe enough to store, cook and serve food from !?
    In the end, we had to make our apologies to the parents who were really distressed about the whole thing and who were left feeling as if they should have done something more, which was ridiculous as the fault clearly lies with the lazy and dismissive attitude of the company towards people with allergies. It clearly doesn’t pay to offer alternatives, but they are perfectly happy to continue serving children who may not already know they HAVE a nut allergy, potentially life threatening foods, rather than just ensure they cut out the allergens !

    So, a brief warning to all parents whose children are invited to any of the 44 AMF centres in the UK. Prepare to be disappointed in both the availability of food (pretty much all of which Adam has eaten the equivalent of in other establishments) and the flexibility of staff to accommodate allergy sufferers. I don’t know how much revenue they make from serving ready salted peanuts in the empty bar 20m away, but it’s clearly enough to be worth excluding a whole range of people from eating with them.

    I agree allergies should be treated as a disability with all of the legal clout which goes with any act of discrimination.

  4. Since this event, the business have been in touch and have apologised unreservedly. What we saw as a blatant case of discrimination was in truth, a case of poor training and misinformation of the kitchen staff. The allergy boards which they use show ticks and crosses, presumably to make things easy for the staff on the front counter to explain their allergy policy.
    Unfortunately, the staff (all of them including the duty manager) read the boards in correctly, what read ‘Contains Nuts = X’ they interpreted as unsuitable as they contain nuts, which we now know was completely untrue. There was at that time, nothing on the menu which contained nuts, and the original excuse of being joined to the bar area and a cross-contamination issue being likely, were debunked immediately and new guidance materials and improved training would be implemented that week.
    By way of apology, we were offered a free children’s party for my son and his friends who he had been unable to join. We were also given free passes for a number of subsequent visits to the bowling alley which we have now made use of.
    In fairness, the company held their hands up and made amends pretty quickly, but it was a shame we had to escallate the issue so far, as this was totally avoidable. Hopefully, this will resolve the issue for other families in the future.

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