Liz’s story: creating Allergy Aware Kitchens

Today’s allergy entrepreneur sharing her business’ story is Liz Allan who previously ran “The Cake Crusader” (a business which developed allergy friendly cakes). Last year Liz founded Allergy Aware Kitchen, which aims to “train, educate and advise food service companies the best way to make their kitchens a safe place for allergic diners”. 

Hi Liz. Thanks for talking to me about Allergy Aware Kitchen. Let’s start with your family’s experiences of food allergies and intolerance. I know you have a wheat and gluten intolerance and your son has a gluten intolerance. How long have you been avoiding wheat and gluten? How easy do you find it to eat out safely?

Thanks Louise, I haven’t been able to eat wheat since 2001 and then I was still becoming poorly so I had a variety of tests and was told to avoid gluten. My son, who is 8 years old has been showing similar symptoms to me.

Both my son and I had a Coeliac antibody test and came up negative and I felt we were fobbed off so we had a private Coeliac gene test as they aren’t available on the NHS. This was suggested by a nutritionist I was seeing and both tests came back positive.

The test doesn’t categorically state that my son is definitely Coeliac, but he has a higher risk of becoming Coeliac as he gets older. Due to his symptoms and the positive test results he now doesn’t eat wheat or gluten.

As for eating out safely, I contact the food service organisation in advance and ask a variety of questions relating to where the dishes are prepared and risks of cross contamination.

As you know, the number of times you have to check (before you go, when you get there, when they serve you) can be frustrating so we sometimes go for the easy option ie one of the chains where you know they’ve had some form of accreditation and have a high food hygiene rating. We still check though even at the accredited chains as you can never be too sure!

I have recently been glutened when eating lunch out with friends, although as my symptoms don’t always kick in until a day or so afterwards I can’t prove it. So, even asking in advance or making sure that the waitress understands your issues can still cause a problem even for someone like me.

I want my son to be able to go out and eat safely when he’s older and not feel that he can’t trust the food service staff who are serving him to do something which will make him ill.

Allergy Aware Kitchen runs training courses for owners of restaurants, cafes, pubs etc, teaching them how to be “allergy aware”. What topics do your courses cover? Who do you train: are the courses aimed at the kitchen staff? 

The courses are aimed at everyone working in food service, from the barman through to the manager, waiting staff, kitchen hands and of course all chefs no matter what level.

We teach food service staff about the differences between food allergy, food intolerance, coeliac disease and anaphylaxis as lots of people just don’t know what these conditions are or even what can happen when someone has a reaction. Some haven’t even heard of anaphylaxis and the fact that it can, at worst be fatal!

We also take staff through how to prevent cross contamination and what procedures they need to put into place to ensure that their customers are safe every time they eat.

The course is interactive so not just a “chalk and talk” session, there are activities which staff work through together in order to put what they’re learning into the context of their own organisations.

Do you think the new allergen laws will improve eating out for allergic customers?

I think that allergic customers need to know that they will have the right to ask for the EU Top14 allergen information. It is going to take some time for the information to disseminate through the allergic community.

Once people start asking about the allergens which are contained in their foods and subsequently are aware that food service companies can’t say that they don’t know, then food service companies will take things seriously.

As for improving eating out, I think if companies are not just allowed to do the “minimum” ie wave an Allergen Matrix in front of your nose for you to work out yourself what’s in the food they serve then things will only improve.

Food service companies need to realise that their staff also need investing in and require training in order to understand what allergy customers actually want/need. They need to understand their allergy customers and learn from them. They need to understand how to avoid and prevent cross contamination so that their allergy customers don’t get ill in the first place. We’ve still got a long way to go but I’m hoping that we’ll get there soon!

The training sounds fantastic – and much needed! As consumers, how will we know that a restaurant has undergone your training and is “allergy aware”?

Each delegate is assessed at the end of the course and will receive a certificate once they have passed the assessment.

Once all of the staff in the organisation are trained, the business is given the option to have an audit at a future date and if they pass the company gets an accreditation of being “Food Allergy Aware”. This is valid for 1 year, at which point they have to be re-audited.

In future, all food service companies who pass our accreditation will be shown on a database on our website.

Thanks so much for talking to us, Liz!

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