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New food law will change allergy-sufferer Lorna's life

New EU regulations coming into effect this weekend will prove life-changing for Lorna Muldoon and her family, from Belfast. Stephanie Bell finds out why.

From tomorrow eating out will become a whole lot safer and more enjoyable for the many thousands of adults and children who suffer from food allergies. New EU legislation means that people with food allergies or intolerances can ask pubs, restaurants and takeaways for a list of ingredients in any meal.

At the same time, changes to labelling on pre-packed foods are also coming into force making it compulsory for major allergens to be emphasised in the ingredients' list.

Allergy is now regarded as a chronic disease affecting an estimated 21 million adults in the UK and between 6-8% of children.

Every year the number of sufferers increases by 5% and it is expected that in 10 years time around half of all Europeans will have a food allergy.

While the immune system normally protects people from germs, in people with food allergies it mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful.

In some cases the body's immune response can be severe and life-threatening so that the simple pleasure of eating out - something which most of us take for granted - can pose a major risk for people with food allergies.

In fact, the danger and general lack of understanding has forced many people with food allergies to consider the risk of eating out at all simply too great.

However, these new rules mean the local catering industry is now under pressure to educate its staff on allergies and take steps to ensure there is no risk to sufferers.

To help prepare the industry, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Northern Ireland has been working closely with bars, restaurants and takeaways as well as district councils' environmental health departments and other food businesses to be ready for the new rules.

"We have been running seminars and workshops with our colleagues in safefood - and environmental health departments have worked hard to make sure all food businesses know what the new law means for them and how to prepare for it," says Sharon Gilmore, head of Standards & Dietary Health at the FSA in NI.

"The restaurants, pubs, cafes, takeaways and hotels we have spoken to want to make eating out a great experience for all their customers.

"All food businesses must comply with the new legislation and most have been working on changes to how they prepare their menus and recipes. We know this is a major task for businesses and so to help them, we have produced lots of helpful materials that can be displayed inside the restaurant to help both customers and staff."

Called the Food Information for Consumers Regulation, or EU FIC, the new law compels food caterers to provide information about the allergen ingredients used in any food they sell.

They can have this written on a menu and/or a chalkboard, or display a notice inviting customers to speak with a member of staff.

If the business cannot, or refuses, to give the customer the required information they can be reported to the local council's environmental health department.

If businesses fail to comply on an ongoing basis, district councils will, in most cases, issue an improvement notice under the Food Safety (NI) Order 1991.

If the business fails to comply with that, then they risk being taken to court and fined up to £5,000 and/or given a custodial sentence.

The FSA in NI is encouraging people to explain their dietary needs to staff when eating out, or to ask for information about allergens, and has also produced handy 'chef cards' which can be filled out and given to serving staff, advising them of particular food intolerances.

Michael Walker of safefood's Food Allergy & Food Intolerance Network describes the new law as "a big step forward in giving people with a food allergy a better quality of life - and perhaps even saving a life".

"I am grateful to the catering sector for embracing these changes so wholeheartedly, for the sake of their customers. For many caterers, this is the beginning rather than the end of the learning curve but already, dining out is safer for people with food allergies," he says.

Leading the way in catering for people with food allergies in Northern Ireland is the McKeever Hotel Group which includes Corr's Corner, Dunsilly and Adair Arms hotels.

Several years ago the company was asked by the charity Allergy NI to host an annual dinner for its members, many of whom had never eaten out before.

They were the first hotel group in the UK and Ireland ever to cater specifically for people with allergies on a large scale and the dinner was such a success that it became an annual event, with the hotel group adapting all of its premises to cater for people with allergies, who became regular customers.

"At the time we thought we would have a go at it and to prepare for it, we arranged training so that our staff could learn more about food allergens and how to cater for people with a range of food allergies and intolerances," says managing director Eugene McKeever.

"It was very successful and many of the people there had never been out for a meal before because they were just too frightened that in a commercial kitchen their allergy wasn't being taken seriously enough.

"We have utensils in the kitchen which are used only for cooking for people with allergies and they are kept in a sealed container.

"The rest is simply communication. It is not the end of the world or the biggest hassle in the world for business and there is no real cost apart from providing separate utensils and a container to keep them in. I would reassure other companies that with the right knowledge and good communication with customers, these new EU rules can be implemented and are good for business."

Debbie Muldoon, from Belfast, whose 13-year-old daughter Lorna has a nut allergy, welcomed the new law which she said will be "life changing".

Debbie (44), a business analyst, is married to Dominic (45), a software sales executive, and they have two other daughters, Megan (8) and Carla (10).

The family discovered Lorna's allergy when she was just two years old after extensive testing because as a baby she suffered from severe eczema.

If she comes into contact with peanuts, she can go into anaphylactic shock, which can cause her to stop breathing.

Lorna carries an EpiPen adrenaline auto-injector device with her at all times, which she has been trained to use as a life-saver against any unexpected contact with peanuts.

At the age of six at a birthday party, she did take a nibble of a rice crispy bun, unaware it had been baked with peanut butter, and had an immediate and severe reaction.

"Her tongue started to tingle and her eyes swelled up straightaway," says Debbie.

"One of the mums knew immediately what was happening and called us.

"We used her EpiPen and were told she had a type-two reaction which left her throwing up and covered in hive-type itching things for the next 48 hours.

"You cannot be careful enough. We have to check every pack of anything we buy. There is one supermarket which puts "may contain nuts" on all of its labels to cover itself and it means we can't even go in there.

"Ice lollies, which you would think are just juice, are a threat and even vanilla ice cream.

"We do love to eat out as a family. I love Indian food and Lorna loves Chinese food, but we've never been for a meal to either because they use a lot of nut oils and we can't risk it.

"I remember asking in one restaurant about a meal and the waitress replied 'You should be ok'. That was that, we couldn't take the risk.

"It's a lack of training and it has meant that Lorna can't try a lot of the dishes on menus and has to stick to safe things like pizza and chicken nuggets and chips.

"The new law will mean a lot to us and many people. The chef cards which the FSA have brought out are great because you can fill them in and it takes the embarrassment out of it."

A typical example of the lack of understanding in the catering industry about allergies was experienced just recently by Lorna when she joined her friends for a milkshake in a local coffee shop.

"I went into a cafe with my friends and everyone was ordering milkshakes - and I asked the girl behind the counter if she thought it would be safe for me to have one," says Lorna. "She just said 'I don't know' and that was it. I had no choice but to walk away. I hope now the new law will make things easier for myself and others."

A recipe for safety ...

There are 14 key ingredients that could trigger an allergic reaction.

These include allergens people will be familiar with - such as peanuts, nuts, cereals containing gluten, eggs and milk - and other less well-known ones like celery, mustard, sesame seeds, lupin and molluscs.

Under these new rules, food businesses can choose what method they want to use to emphasise these 14 allergens on their product labels.

This could be done by listing them in bold, contrasting colours and underlining.

Also, information on any of the 14 allergens used as ingredients will need to be provided for foods sold without packaging or wrapped on site. This information could be written down on a chalk board or chart, or provided orally by a member of staff.

Where the specific allergen information is not provided upfront, clear signposting to where this information could be obtained must be provided.

These rules will only cover information about major allergens intentionally used as ingredients. They do not cover allergens present following accidental contact.

Chef Cards can also be carried to give to restaurant staff, which will tell the chef which foods you need to avoid.

You can download chef cards from: chefcard.pdf

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