Rebekah Burrow has a severe allergy to Brazil nuts and a less severe allergy to many other nuts.
She was attending a work event with 30-35 colleagues at the cocktail bar for a three-course meal when she inadvertently ate nuts and suffered a reaction.
14 allergens that must be declared
- cereals that contain gluten – including wheat (such as spelt and Khorasan), rye, barley and oats
- crustaceans – such as prawns, crabs and lobsters
- molluscs – such as mussels and oysters
- tree nuts – including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts
- sesame seeds
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million)
“There was nothing on the menu about nuts, so I chose deep fried halloumi and asked the waiter if it contained nuts. He said ‘no’ and sounded very certain. His certainty was unusual, mostly people check.
“When it arrived I took one mouthful and it tasted like pesto, and I know if there’s pesto then there’s a good chance there are nuts.”
She said the dish description didn’t mention pesto. “If it had, I would have checked if it was nut-free pesto."
Assistant manager was 'brilliant'
She immediately asked the staff but they were unsure about what was in the food and had to defer to the assistant manager to find out. Burrow said the assistant manager was brilliant and did exactly the right thing. “Normally there’s a whole blame game around checking, but there was no blaming or questioning, he said ‘What can I do for you right now, what do you need?’”.
She said she thought it was only pine nuts so she was able to take antihistamine, which she bought from a nearby Sainsbury’s and then went straight home.
“I am OK now, but it probably wasn’t very nice for everyone else because I had to rush off. And at that point I still didn’t know if it was going to be OK. I still didn’t know what nuts were in the food, whether it was just pine nuts, nor if antihistamine would be enough because allergic reactions can get worse over time.
"I never know if this is the time it will get worse, or if it will be OK.”
Apology and complimentary food and drinks
The Oxford site has apologised to Burrow, and gave her colleagues the entire meal and drinks for free. Burrow has also been offered a complimentary meal for her and her family, which she has accepted.
She said the company had told her it has also decided to retrain all its staff across the country on allergy information and awareness, which Burrow said was “really positive” and had given her the confidence to go back to the site. She added: “It was the best service after a nut incident that I’ve had.
“People do make mistakes, and obviously that shouldn’t happen. But if you do make the mistake, the most important thing to do is recognise that a bad thing has happened and that you need to fix it immediately rather than looking around for someone to blame. It’s also important to say sorry like you mean it, and to retrain your staff so it doesn’t happen again.”
The Alchemist was contacted for comment but had not responded by the time of publication.
Legislation requires food operators to tell customers whether the 14 listed allergens (see box) are in their food. Guidance from the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) said: “As a food business, it is your responsibility to know which allergens are present in the foods you sell or serve [as well as] training staff in the procedures and policies when asked to provide allergen information [or when] handling allergy information requests.”
Stock phrase won’t cover you
Operators who think that the stock statement ‘our food is prepared in a kitchen that uses nuts’ will cover them for any allergy incidents are wrong, according to the FSA. Businesses are legally obliged to tell customers about the 14 allergens listed and to provide true and correct information about what is in the food.
Burrow said: “The most annoying thing as a nut allergy sufferer is when you walk into a restaurant and you try to order and they give you the line ‘we didn’t put any nuts in it but we use nuts in the kitchen’, a stock line that people have got from somewhere. They think they’re covering themselves legally, but they’re not. It makes their customer feel very unwelcome, and it makes me the least confident eating somewhere.”
The FSA also said food businesses need to “know the risks of allergen cross-contamination when handling and preparing foods”.
Failing to adhere to the legislation can result in criminal proceedings, as in the case of takeaway restaurateur Mohammed Zaman. In May 2016, Zaman was convicted and jailed for six years for manslaughter after a customer had a severe allergic reaction and died.
Paul Wilson told the Indian Garden in Easingwold, North Yorkshire, that he could not eat nuts when he placed his order in January 2014. The instruction was written on his order and on the lid of the food containers when it arrived. However, the food contained peanuts, causing Wilson to suffer severe anaphylactic shock.
The Teesside Crown Court heard that Zaman had changed his ingredients to ones that contained peanuts because they were cheaper.
In the event of an allergy incident, customers are advised to report what has happened to their local authority, which will investigate. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the local authority will take a proportionate response, which could include a warning, a fine or potential court action.
The FSA is launching a campaign in the autumn to educate consumers about how to ask the right questions of the food provider to avoid an incident. If there is a need for allergen information, the food business legally needs to be able to provide this either on the menu, on a sign when you walk in, or the information can be provided verbally by staff.
The FSA offers posters in different languages, allergen training that’s free, and chef recipe sheets.