“I texted my husband a final goodbye and ‘I love you’,” says vegan food safety expert Heather Landex.
She’s describing the terrifying experience she had in August 2019 during a work trip undertaking a compliance review of a major international restaurant chain. “I was in an ambulance on my way to hospital, wondering if I was about to die from suspected anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction,” she says.
After waking up with puffy lips and eyes and a severe rash on her chest, Landex called the emergency medical hotline and was advised to get to hospital.
“Suddenly, my lips, hands and feet felt numb, I became wheezy and my hands and nails had gone bone white,” she recalls. “The hotel receptionist called for an ambulance and, once in it, knowing from my training the symptoms of anaphylactic shock, I texted my husband a final goodbye and ‘I love you’. He was a plane flight away with two small kids, no childcare and no ability to get to me – I was terrified.”
Fortunately, immunosuppressants and antihistamines brought Landex back from utter despair and panic relatively swiftly. However, she didn’t feel safe to eat for a while and had to learn how to shop, cook and calm her anxiety around food.
It wasn’t until she was able to see an allergy specialist, after four months on a waiting list, that (animal-based) milk was identified as the culprit.
This sent Landex, an international food safety expert originally from the UK and now based in Denmark, down a path of research into the lives of long-term allergy sufferers. “I understood how it felt to live in fear, scared to eat, and especially to eat out. Thinking I had a severe food allergy affected every part of my life,” she says.
She found that milk is the lead cause of fatal anaphylactic allergic reactions in the UK each year, and that up to 20 per cent of people are suffering from either known or undiagnosed food allergies.
“My eyes have been opened to the challenges – and dangers – that exist in the food service industry for food allergies and intolerances,” says Landex. “First and foremost is a lack of awareness, both among food service professionals and sufferers themselves. Some food service staff may label these customers as picky eaters, misunderstanding or dismissing the best practices needed to keep them safe.”
Confusion over the labelling of non-dairy, milk-free and lactose-free items, also increases the day-to-day uncertainty for Landex, and she’s on a mission to get the food industry to do better.
Inclusive is the new exclusive
Landex’s new book Inclusive: The New Exclusive: How the Food Service Industry Can Stop Leaving Money on the Table is both a rallying cry and an inspiration to an industry in need of change.
She looks at the growing number of people with everything from life-threatening allergies to ethically-driven food preferences and highlights the best and worst practices, demonstrating how better communication, customer service and food safety standards are needed to help not only consumers, but also businesses.
Serving people with dietary preferences, food allergies and intolerances – which Landex estimates to be 20-40% of the worldwide population – better could also help food outlets unlock increased market share, potentially increasing their income by 10-15%, she says.
“Many people in the food service industry believe that less than one in 1,000 people has a serious food allergy, which is possibly true of the more dangerous anaphylactic cases. However, closer to one in 10 people has a food allergy or intolerance. Food businesses are afraid of providing for this larger segment because they’re afraid of also attracting more people with potentially anaphylactic allergies and the increase in risk and liability they could bring.
“Unfortunately, though, this means they could be turning away 10% of their potential customers, plus whoever would have dined with them, when there are ways of providing for them in a risk-free way, with a little more understanding and effort.”
Addressing the issue is becoming more and more urgent, given the increasing number of people suffering from food intolerances, Landex adds.
The need for clear labelling
As the growth in vegan and plant-based eating grows, Landex warns that the most significant risk to consumers and the industry is ambiguity around the labelling of these products, which are typically not safe for people with allergies or those wanting to avoid animal products.
“Contamination thresholds are not regulated yet,” explains Landex who recently became Chief Compliance Officer for global vegan certification program BeVeg. “So 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.”
According to Landex, while food businesses may not be able to reduce their risk to zero, it can be minimized. Catering to this clientele also makes good commercial sense, she says. “Food businesses, including vegan ones, should be willing to go the extra mile, ensuring they are allergy-friendly when it comes to use of animal-derived ingredients, because it future-proofs their businesses.”
Those businesses willing to rise to the challenge will gain a vital competitive edge as they seek to rebuild from the impacts of COVID-19 lockdown closures, adds Landex. “Guaranteeing safety for minority eaters will gain their confidence and create a very loyal following of repeat customers, plus whoever they bring along with them.”
This strategy can help a food business to become more exclusive and sought-after by being inclusive.
Training and a shift in mindset are needed to make this happen, says Landex. “Regulations are already changing, but the law can’t make the industry be inclusive nor force them to care. 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 minority eaters an inconvenience, whereas catering for all needs should be the norm.”
Inclusive: The New Exclusive: How the Food Service Industry Can Stop Leaving Money on the Table Kindle version is available now (paperback on 7 June, 2021).