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Ready to eat: How far should a brand go to accommodate?


6 November 2018

The last few weeks have seen the tragic story of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse spun out across the media, naming and shaming Pret for not doing enough to protect people with allergies. So, how far should businesses go to accommodate allergy sufferers and where does personal responsibility fit in? Accommodating is such an innocuous word, but for people like me who have life-threatening anaphylaxis, it is also central to our relationship as consumers with businesses – particularly those providing food such as restaurants, cafes and supermarkets.

Having spent my entire lifetime carefully avoiding fish, fish vapour, nuts, sesame seeds and kiwi fruit, I am no stranger to having to ask direct questions, combat social boundaries and act as ringleader in what Allergy UKthe Anaphylaxis Campaign and the FSA have recently launched as their #easytoask campaign. I ask questions, I ask people to ask questions on my behalf, I ask to speak to the chef, the manager and to see the allergen list (a legal requirement since 2014). In essence, I do all that so I can eat out safely.

If I’m doing what I can as a consumer, what can I expect others to do for me?

Following the significant media attention in the past few weeks, the two restaurants I have since risked (the only word to describe eating out with allergies) have been incredibly cautious, careful and attentive – much more so than before (something you notice when you can only go to the same few places again and again). The attention and additional questions are great – it illustrates a level of understanding and concern, and businesses going the extra mile convinces me that my medical requirements are being taken seriously. But should businesses have to do that, and where should they draw the line?

Pret, for example, provides guaranteed gluten-free products (one of the 14 main allergens), and also have entirely vegetarian branches. However, they can’t seem to manage to cater for many of the other main allergens, either through safe and competent ingredient labelling (as has been so sadly highlighted through recent news) or through combatting the inevitable cross-contamination that comes from using so many allergens in small kitchens. This will become even more apparent when they undertake the task of responsibly labelling all their products.

What does Pret owe its consumers? Legally and morally, yes it should be labelling as extensively as it can (ignoring the legislative loophole they adopted previously). Should it have to accommodate for me though as much as they are accommodating for gluten allergy sufferers, or those choosing to not eat meat? Legally no. Morally – there is no correct answer, but if they can’t cater for me, how have they decided where to draw the line?

This question really asks what is reasonable or legally required compared to what is progressive. Forward-thinking brands don’t wait for compulsion to act, they spot and respond to a need or an injustice because they believe it supports the people they care about or because it is just the right thing to do. Such an approach can also pay off commercially. For example, were Pret to produce a nut/ sesame-free range in line with their gluten-free one, they might gain customers from the growing cohort of people dealing with severe allergies (numerous nut allergy sufferers, their families, friends and colleagues).

“Forward-thinking brands don’t wait for compulsion to act, they spot and respond to a need or an injustice because they believe it supports the people they care about or because it is just the right thing to do.”

So how far should a business go? The answer is that there is no single answer, and it is okay to admit that. From a communications perspective, as long as you are honest as a business and demonstrate your desire to support people, no one can fault that. Is it worth trying to push the line from reasonable to progressive, so that someone like me can feel a bit more comfortable, and pick up a snack a bit more easily? From my perspective as an allergy sufferer and a communications professional – yes, why wouldn’t your business be trying to draw in and cater for every possible customer? The good reputation you get for being a safe and trusted brand is priceless, but not without risk. Ultimately, it’s up to your business to take on that challenge.