On the rare occasion Lucille Whiting, 37, takes her two-year-old son Elijah out of the house to eat she now brings along a packed lunch. The toddler is allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, sesame seeds, mustard seeds and banana, and Whiting says eating out has become impossible through her fear of restaurants making mistakes, mislabelling products or simply not knowing what is in their dishes.
At a recent family birthday, despite the restaurant where they were eating having an allergen menu to hand, the staff said they couldn’t actually guarantee no cross contamination. “He has sat in a restaurant with a bowl of broccoli before because they couldn’t guarantee anything else was safe,” says Whiting.
The family from Suffolk carry an epipen in case Elijah enters anaphylactic shock – marked by his eyes, mouth and lips swelling up – and say “severe allergies are a disability” that still isn’t taken seriously enough despite the recent deaths of two teenage girls, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse and Megan Lee, from severe allergic reactions.
Whiting, who has five children, discovered her son’s allergies when she fed him cereal with milk at seven months old. From that point she put her career on hold for 18 months to try and manage his ill health, which was so unpredictable that on one occasion he stopped breathing in the middle of Sainsbury’s. Today she says the family avoid going out for family meals because of the stress.
“We’ve been to coffee shops where we’ve seen staff not cleaning equipment properly between serving cows milk and coconut milk and we’ve recently heard of a vegan customer being served potatoes with dairy butter at a local restaurant,” she says. “For us, mistakes that that could be life changing.”
She isn’t the only one. Dr Pragya Agarwal, 41, from Formby, Merseyside, has two-year-old twins April and India. Both babies, who were born prematurely, are allergic to dairy, soya, gluten, egg, berries and nuts.
Agarwal said that going out is a “real struggle” and the parents always carry Tupperware containers of smoothies, rice, pasta and other snacks, even if they are just going out of the house for a couple of hours. “I am constantly reading labels. We have to choose places to eat very carefully,” she tells HuffPost UK.
She says children’s menus are a particular problem as they often have no soya or egg-free options at all.
Stephanie Hazelwood, 25, who suffers from a dairy allergy that causes eczema flare-ups, says for her the issue is with smaller independent food outlets.
“I absolutely love eating in authentic restaurants – South East Asian being my favourite – but they never have allergen information. Fortunately they don’t tend to use dairy so I am okay. I wouldn’t go to a French restaurant if you paid me.”
London chains are not as much of a problem, she says, but as soon as she leaves the capital she struggles to locate allergen information. ”[So] I call up the restaurant beforehand or go to a chain like Pizza Express – hardly ideal.”
After the two recent teenage deaths and, in Megan Lee’s case, restaurant bosses being jailed for gross negligence, why is the food industry not making quicker progress on food allergy issues?
One woman, Helen Betham, said Pret A Manger – where Natasha Ednan-Laperouse bought the sesame-seeded baguette that led to her fatal allergic reaction – was still not listing all its ingredients on its products. Although quinoa, to which Betham is allergic, is not one of the 14 major allergens that retailers must list on their packaging, menus or websites, she says she doesn’t understand why they don’t just list all ingredients.
Agarwal believes the food industry is lagging behind public opinion on this issue because the number of customers without allergies outweighs the number with allergies. “I suppose restaurants have to consider their profit margins, and often designing a menu or having a selection of products to suit allergy sufferers takes some imagination,” she says.
Chinelo Awa, 30, London, who is allergic to several types of fish, agrees. “As allergies are not contagious and do not affect a large group of people, it’s more difficult to expedite change – these factors make them rank low in our collective awareness).”
According to a 2017 report by the Food Standards Agency only 5-8 per cent of children in the UK have a diagnosed food allergy. The percentage of adults is even lower at 1-2 per cent.
Agarwal and Whiting both believe another issue is that allergies aren’t taken seriously in the UK, but attributed to overcautious parenting or fussiness.
Whiting says: “We hear constantly that ‘allergies never used to exist’, as if it’s some modern phenomenon, made up by over-anxious parents.
“Allergies are strongly associated with fussy, faddy eaters who choose not to eat certain foods. People seem to believe that allergies are some kind of life choice like being vegan, or that people who say they have allergies have overactive imaginations,” she adds. “The attitude arises because most people don’t have even a basic understanding of allergies.”
Hazelwood says: “It would be more helpful if senior members of these big organisations had allergies themselves – then the issue might be considered a priority rather than just ‘something to address on the agenda’.” Whiting wants greater public awareness and allergies to be taught in schools as she says it would make a life-changing diagnosis slightly easier to manage.
“When I first came to the UK,” says Agarwal, who grew up in India, “there was really very little awareness around vegetarianism and it has taken so long, but now this is quite a movement. Similarly, we are now becoming more aware of how wide-spread allergies can be.”