Why are people with food allergies less important than vegetarians and vegans?

Something that has always bothered and bemused me is the amount of attention we pay to people who choose not to eat certain foods as opposed to those who simply have no choice. Most restaurants or cafés today have little ‘V’ and ‘Veg’ symbols next to dishes on their menus to indicate their suitability for vegans and vegetarians. Some now specify which dishes are ‘paleo-friendly’ and even include special meals to cater for these customers.

By way of comparison, try finding anything similar warning people with food allergies. In the allergy capital of the world, it is unacceptable that people who choose not to eat certain foods for ethical reasons are better catered for than people whose lives are at risk.

This week marks the national Food Allergy Week. My brother has had several food allergies since he was a child. While some have become mild or disappeared entirely with age, many still remain. When it comes to ordering food, my brother usually asks questions to check if any of his allergens are present in a particular dish — but this is not always a viable solution for several reasons.

For example, it is not always obvious when allergens are present. At one restaurant we visited, my brother had a reaction to some hazelnuts in a steak dish — not the most common ingredient for beef. The restaurant was apologetic but had not provided an allergy warning anywhere on the menu despite nuts being one of the most common food allergies in Australia.

In other cases, waiters and chefs appear to have little idea of the seriousness of allergies and do not provide accurate information or give assurances that they cannot keep — leading to the dangerous but yet all too common possibility of cross-contamination.

Many mechanisms already exist to make it easy for business owners to indicate common allergies to their customers. The New South Wales Government, Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia and other organisations provide resources and information.

The argument from the lobby group Restaurant and Catering Australia that restaurants “don’t have the responsibility for the health care of our customers” is worrying and makes little sense when restaurants cater for vegetarians, vegans and others who do not eat certain foods by choice.

If cafés and restaurants can find the time and effort to warn vegans and vegetarians on their menus, then including common allergen details should not be an unreasonable imposition. The chain Ribs & Burgers provides a good example on their website of what can be done.

It is time for food outlets to step up and recognise the serious duty of care that they have to those whose lives are at risk from the food that they serve.

Originally published at centrethought.com on May 19, 2017.

Photo: angelafermin (CC-NC-ND)