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Allergies and Intolerances – The Risks and Opportunities For Plant-Based Businesses

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Allergies and intolerances present both risks and opportunities for plant-based businesses, according to leading plant-based food safety expert Heather Landex. The former UK food safety auditor, now a food safety consultant is both vegan and dairy intolerant. She advises food sector professionals including plant-based companies on allergies and is the author of the best-selling restauranteurs’ guide Inclusive is the New Exclusive: How the Food Industry can Stop Leaving Money on the Table. 

She argues that by understanding allergies plant-based companies in foodservice and manufacturing can both keep clientele safe and build a loyal customer base.  

In her ten-part blog How Not to Kill Your Customers Accidentally she sets out key areas that foodservice operators need to consider to prevent harm to diners. It contains insights she gained from a decade of advising thousands of food professionals in several countries, auditing and inspecting restaurants and hotels. It includes the importance of making sure all waiting staff are fully trained in allergies, the dangers of stereotyping or miscommunicating, and the problems of cross-contamination caused by toasters and tea towels that transmit food debris. A classic example in foodservice is a pizza restaurant where toppings are laid out in dishes side-by-side. There is a high chance that traces of cheese will find their way into the other toppings.    

She told us: “a lot of people think vegan food is dairy-free when it isn’t at all. It is very dangerous for the allergic community. One problem is that consumers are buying plant-based for a range of reasons – some ethical, some dietary, and some both. Some went vegan because of a milk allergy, which is one of the most common and deadly food allergies and then learnt about animal welfare and the environment. So their need is for dairy-free as well as plant-based. Some are allergic to eggs, fish, shellfish, or meat proteins. The custom of people with those diverse requirements is a big opportunity for plant-based businesses. Despite vegans and people with allergies being a minority of overall consumers, if you can appeal to these customers, they are likely to be loyal and committed to your brand and recommend it to other people from the same community.”  

Heather Landex is more qualified than most to comment. She herself was hospitalised with a suspected milk allergy after eating a vegan hotel breakfast. She discovered that she had multiple allergies, and milk and egg contamination in vegan products is extremely common. As a food safety expert, she knew this in theory but now has practical evidence that choosing a vegan option is no protection against unexpected allergens.  

As the plant-based food sector has scaled up there are many new dishes and ingredients on supermarket shelves described as vegan, vegetarian, or non-dairy. While this is great for vegans and people wanting to reduce their consumption of animal products it can also cause confusion and danger to those with allergies and intolerances. These customers can be drawn to plant-based items as they appear to be healthier and safer options. Many consumers wrongly believe that something labelled vegan or plant-based will be free from animal-origin allergens, not realising those labels provide no guarantee that a food is safe. For example, an ice cream labelled on the front as non-dairy could be assumed to be dairy-free ice cream, while the ingredients list at the back says it may contain milk. This means plant-based food producers and restaurant staff need to be more aware of the dangers that may be hidden in their products, and how to best communicate the risks. 

Sadly unclear labelling can and does lead to illness and even death.  

According to the World Allergy Organisation (WAO) allergies are very common, affecting more than 20% of the population in most developed countries. The WAO estimates that allergy prevalence in populations by country ranges between 10 – 40%. In the US More than 50 million people experience allergies each year and they are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness. Allergies are responsible for approximately 30,000 emergency department visits and 150–200 deaths each year. In the EU more than 150 million suffer from chronic allergic diseases and the current prediction is that by 2025 half of the entire EU population will be affected. In the UK 44% of adults and 50% of children have one or more allergies. In the UK and other territories, The 14 most common allergens must be emphasised within the ingredients list of pre-packed food or drink. In 2021 the UK passed Natasha’s Law, which extended the regulation to include food pre-packed for direct sale. Restaurants and cafes must also have allergen information available.   

Even with regulation labelling can still cause considerable confusion, with terms such as vegan, plant-based, may-contain and dairy free sometimes used interchangeably. Heather Landex says the lack of clarity causes problems for consumers and producers alike: “Something can be certified as vegan but not be suitable for people with a dairy allergy because it might contain traces of dairy. If you take the Vegan Society accreditation they will accept may contain and trace because otherwise there would be a shortage of vegan products with a vegan label, and because unintentional contamination does not increase the demand for animal products. So a vegan product can contain a small amount of dairy or egg and still be allowed to be called vegan. But the average consumer might assume a higher standard of allergy friendliness. The UK Food Standards Agency encourages the use of the label may contain. A free from claim can only be made following rigorous testing which is costly. This has led to supermarkets holding only limited ranges of free from items and customers paying more for those items. Concerns about risks have also led to discrimination against people with allergens in restaurants – with some being refused service. Heather Landex believes that this is an area where plant-based establishments could take a lead and provide an inclusive environment, giving them both an ethical and commercial advantage.   

While the plant-based sector benefits from the custom of those with allergies and intolerances It needs to skill up to meet the needs of this significant market. So how can plant-based food professionals include allergic customers in their customer base and keep everyone safe and healthy?   

Plant-based businesses are naturally wary of taking on the extra responsibility of reaching out to allergic customers. That is why Heather Landex works directly with brands and foodservice providers to navigate the regulations and concerns: “As well as training health and safety assessors’ associations and consultants so that they can help businesses, I work directly with hotels, restaurants, and brands. Because they are plant-based it is important that they understand allergies and can make their food safe so that they can serve this wider market and avoid unnecessary liability.”   

Alice Grahame
Alice Grahame is a freelance writer based in London. She’s worked for the BBC, Guardian and various NGOs. She enjoys walking, allotment gardening and trying new plant-based dishes.