Should food service workers receive basic food allergy and intolerance training?

I say this time and again, but it’s so frustrating when you go out to eat and you’re trying to find somewhere that caters for your dietary needs. I’ve had some great experiences at restaurants and some terrible ones. I’ve come across staff who are completely clued up about food allergy and intolerance needs and others that have no idea whatsoever. For instance, I once asked if something was dairy free and had the response ‘is that the same as gluten free?’

What is it like to be dairy and gluten intolerant - Nikki Young Writes

It’s tear your hair out time, fuelled with anxiety whenever we go anywhere and I can never relax until I’ve ordered something that my son can eat. You could say why do we even bother going out, but why shouldn’t we? As a family, we’ve always enjoyed eating in restaurants and cafes. It’s great for the children to learn how to behave in social situations and I see no reason why we should hide away just because we have a gluten and dairy intolerant son.

Am I expecting too much though? Food service workers are, after all, paid minimum wages and what do they care? Although restaurants and cafes now have to indicate whether their food contains any of the major known allergens, this doesn’t mean that the staff are any more qualified to answer questions about the food offered. The managers, yes, but not the staff that work for them.

One example of the inconsistencies of restaurants is when my husband took the children to Frankie and Benny’s, Tunbridge Wells. We’ve been there before and were well looked after, so it was somewhere that he thought would be fine to take them after they’d been to the cinema next door.

My husband asked for the gluten free menu and realised that it only had adult portions. The little one said he would like the ribs, so my husband asked  if he could have a smaller portion from this gluten free menu. The waitress said that they were not allowed to change the menu in any way, but as my husband explained (at least three times in the end), he was not asking them to change the menu, but to provide a smaller portion of what was there. After all, could a six year old really be expected to eat £17 worth of ribs?!

The waitress replied that why couldn’t our son have the ribs from the children’s menu, to which my husband asked would that be possible – are they gluten free then?

‘How should I know?’ came the reply. It was at this point that my husband told her to forget it and they left.

Perhaps she had a valid question, how is she supposed to know this information if she isn’t told it in the first place? But at the same time, if you don’t know something, you go and ask someone who does, don’t you? If you work in the service industry, it’s not your job to be rude to the customers and if you find their requests irritating, then perhaps you are in the wrong job.

I know there are training packages for food service staff to learn about food allergies and intolerances. Of course, these cost money and unlike basic food hygiene training, it’s not compulsory. Perhaps it should be and of course from my point of view, I would definitely like to see that happening one day.

If mistakes are made in a restaurant and the wrong food is served because of lack of knowledge, it could be fatal to some and life threatening to others. For my son, it would be unpleasant and uncomfortable if he ate something that he shouldn’t, but the effects are seen almost immediately and I’m sure Frankie and Benny’s wouldn’t be too pleased if he were to have an accident in their restaurant!

This isn’t an isolated case. It happens all the time and as I’ve pointed out here, this is a restaurant that says it caters for allergies and in the past we’ve been there and had no problems. The inconsistencies with staff knowledge and training, however, meant that on this particular occasion Frankie and Benny’s failed to honour that statement and my husband and children had to find somewhere else to eat.

Do you think they should care about that, or do they see us as one less problem to worry about? Perhaps they don’t really need or want the likes of us in their restaurants, trying to change the menus and order around our dietary needs.

What about you, have you had similar experiences of repeat visits to restaurants and inconsistencies in the service? Do you think that food service staff should receive basic food allergy and intolerance training?

About Nicola Young

Freelance writer and copywriter

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