In her new book, Inclusive: The New Exclusive, food safety expert Heather Landex argues that the food industry is not giving consumers with dietary restrictions the information they need to make informed decisions.
This lack of information has led to several cases of severe, sometimes fatal, allergic reactions. And Landex argues that food outlets are also losing money, because many consumers with dietary restrictions don’t feel comfortable eating out.
There are now more of these consumers than ever, with a quarter of UK households shopping from the “Free From” section. Dietary restrictions include food allergies, intolerances, and preferences such as vegetarianism and veganism.
Heather Landex is vegan herself, and also suffers from food allergies. She was inspired to write the book after experiencing a severe allergic reaction.
She argues that unclear labelling of plant-based foods is an issue, because those who are allergic to animal ingredients such as dairy or shellfish may assume plant-based foods are safe to eat. In reality, many vegan products are manufactured in facilities that also handle animal ingredients, meaning they aren’t suitable for allergy sufferers. Statistics suggest that 80% of people who eat at vegan restaurants aren’t vegan, raising concerns that many of them may have allergies.
There has also been controversy around plant-based options that aren’t actually suitable for vegetarians due to being cooked on the same grill as meat — such as Burger King’s Rebel Whopper and McDonald’s McVeggie in New Zealand.
Unfortunately, many food manufacturers “pass the buck” by including generic disclaimers on packaging.
“Contamination thresholds are not regulated yet,” says Landex, “and therefore the terms ‘may contain’ or ‘traces’ are disclaimers used to pass liability about food allergies and contamination along the food supply chain, eventually to the consumer. The chef or consumer often has no idea what these disclaimers actually mean for them in terms of risk.”
In total, about 1 in 10 people are estimated to have some form of dietary restriction, meaning businesses could be losing 10-15% of their income by not catering to this market. In particular, plant-based eating is soaring — 55% of UK households are reducing their meat consumption, while 23% of people are avoiding dairy.
“Why would anyone eat at a restaurant where a member of their group isn’t welcomed?” says Landex. “A huge part of business success is understanding customer needs and wants, but people without food allergies, intolerances or preferences, simply don’t get it or consider them an inconvenience, whereas catering for all needs should be the norm.”