How FreeFrom is Impacting the Hospitality Industry

FFEOA 16 CMYK 300dpi LRIn December 2014, with the implementation of the new Food Information for Consumers regulations, allergy became ‘real’ for the food service industry. That is not to say, of course, that many outlets, especially the larger ones, had not been aware of – and indeed made provision for – allergic guests before. But with the advent of the new regulations, everyone had to take note.

Predictably, this caused wide scale panic across much of the industry. ‘Creativity is dead – chefs hamstrung by new regulations’ headlines were followed by total confusion among many smaller outlets. ‘So what is an allergy?….’ ‘Does this mean that I have to provide food without gluten for everyone?’ ‘Does cooking gluten-free mean I can’t use butter?…’ ‘Am I going to be sued?…’

Eighteen months later, although there are still wide swathes of ignorance throughout the industry (I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that a dish is perfectly safe for me, on a dairy free diet, because it does not contain any gluten…) the industry is rapidly learning to live with the regulations. It is also realising that the whole freefrom movement opens up some rather exciting opportunities.

But there is a curious anomoly about this situation. The ‘freefrom food’ industry depends for its very existence on a relatively small number of people with serious health conditions (food allergies/intolerances, coeliac disease etc) for whom the food has to be produced under the most rigorous of conditions in order to safeguard their health. Yet, the enormous growth in the industry (12-15% year on year for the last 5 years) is driven by people with relatively low key food issues – or by those who have none at all but who believe that foods made without some of the major allergens (primarily gluten, dairy products and soya) is healthier.

This creates a certain amount of confusion for food service providers who can be faced, at the same service with a genuine peanut allergic who could die as a result of a failure on their part to recognise or disclose the presence of peanuts in a dish – and someone who ‘prefers’ to avoid dairy products but will make a special exception of a cream topped dessert ‘because it looks so delicious’. Fortunately, the law is quite clear: information about any of the 14 major allergens in any dish must be available at all times to all customers. How those customers choose to use it is up to them.

However, what the law does not require, is that every outlet should provide food that is suitable for those with food allergies – unless they choose to. And increasing numbers of them are choosing to do just that.

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What had long been known in food allergic and coeliac communities was that, if you had such a condition, you simply did
not go out to eat: it was either unsafe or an embarrassing hassle – or, if you did manage to find somewhere safe to go, the choice was so limited that it was not worth it. Which meant that their friends and family tended not to eat out either. Five years ago Coeliac UK estimated that there was at least a million pounds worth of food service business to be had from coeliacs and their families alone if the industry could get its head around gluten free.

With a rapidly growing number of people choosing to eat gluten, dairy or soya free (latest Mintel figures suggest that at least 20% of UK households now have at least one member who eats freefrom for one reason or another) the numbers who wish to eat out ‘freefrom’ is also growing fast. Moreover, they are a very keen, social media savvy group. If they find a good place to go, they blog, Tweet, Instagram and Facebook all about it!

See the recent example of Indigo, the fine dining restaurant at London’s One Aldwych hotel. After a refurbishment of their restaurant and kitchens they re-opened with an entirely gluten and dairy free menu – but did not tell anyone about it – and no one noticed! Three months later, they ‘came clean’ on social media – and their covers served over the next three months went up by over 30% – and have remained up!

Suspecting that this might be the case from our long experience with freefrom food in the retail sector (we had been running FreeFrom Food Awards for a number of years) we launched FreeFrom Eating Out Awards in 2014 to raise awareness and to celebrate excellence in freefrom in food service.

These have not only been very successful in terms of raising awareness, but also in terms of ‘educating’ our entrants, many of whom have gone from a tentative toe in the water with some gluten free dishes, to being fully ‘freefrom’ outlets both able and willing to create dishes for those on gluten, dairy, soya, nut and any other allergen-free diets. And doing well at it!

This year’s FreeFrom Eating Out Award open on June 15th with categories covering all sides of the hospitality industry from cafés and fish and chip shops to five star restaurants.

Entry is easy and on line and the winners will be presented at the Food Matters Live event at ExCeL in November this year. For more information check in to the Awards site here.

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By Michelle Berriedale-Johnson
Director of the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards

 

 

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