Leaving home for the first time in your late teens or early 20s is seriously exciting – and seriously scary. Whether you are moving out to get a job or to go to university, this may the first time you have ever lived away from home, had to do your own washing, pay your own bills, shop, cook, clean. It is a lot to take on.
And how much more difficult does that become if you have a food allergy. Not only do you have to navigate shopping but the hazards of eating with friends who do not have allergies so think nothing of ordering a takeaway or dropping into the nearest pizza or kebab house. How hard is it, especially in a new place with new friends who you don’t know well, to have to hold up the whole party while you explain about your food allergy and how you can’t just grab and go. It is not surprising that all too often, rather than ‘make a fuss’, young people will take risks that they would never have taken, or been allowed to take, at home.
So it is sad, but not surprising, that more fatal or near fatal allergy incidents occur in this age group than in any other. A situation that the Food Standards Agency is tackling in its campaign, #Speak Up for Food Allergies, which runs for the whole of March.
The campaign is designed both to encourage young people to tell their friends about their allergies and to check, check and check again when they eat out whether in a restaurant or, even more important, from a takeaway.
Good friends are so valuable
Friends can be incredibly supportive but they have to understand what living with food allergy really means: that eating a food to which you are allergic really could kill you; that only a very tiny amount of that food could be enough to cause a reaction and that, if you do have a reaction, calling 999 and helping you use your Epipen injector could save your life. But once they know and understand, friends will also help you be careful, will check ingredients, will call up restaurants and will give you moral support if you are having a hard time with an eaterie or in finding somwhere or something to eat.
Check, check, check
The other leg to the campaign is the need to check and check again whether the food you are going to eat or get delivered will be safe for you. By law all eateries have to be able to tell you if any of the 14 major allergens are present in their food and they must serve you ‘safe’ food but there are still many hazards along the way. These usually arise from human error or ignorance on the part of the eaterie.
So, when going to a restaurant:
- Ideally, call them first to check out how allergy aware they are and, if you are not happy with their answer, then choose a different restaurant.
- When you get there, check again with the waiting staff and if you are uncomfortable with the answers, ask to see the chef.
- Be very specific about what you cannot eat (it is shocking how many waiting staff will not understand that creme fraiche, for example, contains milk) and what reaction you are likely to have.
- Do not allow yourself to be fobbed off. You have a perfect right to know what is in the food they are going to serve you and any decent restaurant will be anxious to accommodate you.
- Do not take risks. If you are not comfortable with what they tell you, play safe and opt for a dish that you know will be safe. It may mean baked potato and salad – again – but better bored than in an ambulance on the way to hospital.
Takeaways, especially if they are delivered, pose an even higher level of risk because your order goes through several hands before it gets to you, it is often automated to it is hard to find out much detail and you are not there in person to ask the questions. So…
- Do not order via an app as you have no idea whether the information on the app is correct. Recipes change frequently and sometimes, if a particular ingredient has not been available they may have substituted another.
- Always speak to the service and explain exactly what you cannot eat. Give examples of the foods/ingredients that will cause a reaction and explain to them what could happen to you if you ate something to which you are allergic.
- Ask them to label your allergy safe meal clearly so that it cannot get mixed up with other dishes.
- If you are not comfortable with the answers that you get, play safe. Either go to a different outlet or make something for yourself while your companions have the takeaway.
- Do not feel embarrassed about asking questions. Food businesses are legally obliged to give you this information so you are totally within your rights.