Picky New Age Diners: Responsible For The Spike In Food Allergy-related Deaths In Recent Years?

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Last week, the Daily Telegraph reported that the growing popularity of “fad diets” is to blame for the spike in food allergy-related deaths in Australia in recent years. Newspaper headlines suggest that it is ‘picky diners’ who are responsible for the food service industry’s growing indifference – or intolerance – to genuine food allergies.

To be honest, this comes as no surprise to me.

It seems that every time I dine with a friend, we must cater to a different food intolerance, allergy, lifestyle choice or diet. They are either celiac, vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, pescatarian, following a keto diet, fruitarian – you name it. I’ve given up cooking dinner for friends: one simply cannot cater to a table of vegans, suffers of celiac disease and pregnant women practising extreme caution. It seems every man and his dog are on a diet – some for health reasons, some because they have no choice, others simply in a bid to become slimmer. We have lost sight of whose dietary limitations are necessity as opposed to choice. What happened to good old meat and three veg? Oh, right, they now call that the Atkins diet…

But are these ‘picky diners’ to blame for the growing number of anaphylactic reactions and fatalities resulting from the food service industry’s failure to take diner’s dietary requirements seriously – or should restaurant and café staff be held to blame?

Australia has the highest food allergy rates in the world, and according to research from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the highest rates of food allergy in children. An estimated one in 10 Australian children suffer from a food allergy. Why the high rate of food allergies in the land down under? Dozens of theories have been presented and explored by immunologists recently, including Australia’s distance from the equator, being a country that is “too squeaky clean”, vitamin deficiencies (in that Australia is the only country in the world not adding vitamin D to its milk), genetics, air pollution and other environmental factors, but to date there is insufficient evidence to explain why allergy rates are so high, and how to prevent children from developing such allergies. Personally, I think it has something to do with the fact that almost an entire generation of us were denied breastmilk and instead offered formula as infants, a trend the World Health Organisation has since condemned in an effort to reverse the trend.

In emergency departments across the country, there has been a threefold increase in children being admitted due to anaphylaxis – severe allergic reactions to foods and medicines – over the past 20 years. And restaurants are largely to blame.

A representative of Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia says the growth of customised restaurant orders due to the fact that diners wish simply to avoid carbs, meats or other non-life-threatening ingredients has led to a “watered-down kitchen culture” where chefs are becoming complacent to actual life-threatening allergies. Chefs report catering entire banquets to people who say they have an onion allergy, only to find afterwards they simply wanted to avoid having onion breath. It continues to frustrate food prep staff and chefs, who wish there was a better way to differentiate between a customer’s ethical choices and life-threating medical conditions when preparing their meals.

The problem isn’t just limited to Australia.

One German study that interviewed restaurant staff revealed widespread ignorance of food allergies. One in five respondents believed removing an allergen from a finished meal made it safe for consumption by a customer with an allergy, while over 41 percent said they believed many customers fabricated allergies. In fact they aren’t wrong: one research study that interviewed participants across Europe found that just 16 percent of people who thought they had a gluten sensitivity actually presented negative effects when eating it.

The problem at hand is not how to lower the high rates of food allergies, but how to minimise anaphylactic reactions in those with serious allergies. And the food industry is just not taking the problem seriously enough. So, to what extent should restaurants, cafes and catering companies be responsible for the dietary requirements of diners and customers? Does the responsibility lie solely with those with food allergies, or should the onus fall on chefs and restaurant staff? And if so, where should they draw the line? Should chefs undergo training to ensure they are able to cater to celiac disease? Will it soon become normal for kitchen staff have printouts of the scientific guide to keto on the walls? Should restaurants invest in technologies that ensure meals are ‘peanut and allergen-free’ before leaving the kitchen?

Last year, the owner of a UK restaurant was found guilty of manslaughter after a 15-year-old girl who ate a takeaway meal from their restaurant died because the meal contained peanut protein, despite the fact her order had clearly stated she was highly allergic to prawns and nuts. Will criminal convictions soon be the ramification of not taking a customer’s order seriously enough? Perhaps it should be.

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