Dietary allergens are part of everyday life. There is no quick fix to eliminate them from our diet. Due to the nature of prevailing allergies, they are not confined to a specific minority or majority, they do not differentiate between ethnicity or gender and they do not show quarter when they target infant new-borns or the elderly. Allergies target humans as a whole on this planet and they do not show discrimination when they become part of a person’s daily routine or life style. Awareness is the key to identifying, preventing and controlling dietary allergens and technology can act as an enabler towards helping to raise awareness. Further, there is a gap in awareness with regards to identifying an allergen on a catering menu that can eliminate the threat of exposure through prevention. This motivated me to research how can technology raise food allergy awareness with three of my class mates at Trinity College Dublin.
Our research question for our final year project was: “How can technology raise food allergy awareness to catering customers?” Throughout our thesis we have examined and formed conclusive results on how technology can inform the public who suffer from allergies by increasing awareness. To examine this area effectively the paper targeted the topic of allergies incorporating the reactions and the treatments. The paper also identifies that there are technologies currently in existence and that they are indeed creating an awareness. The research question also aims to address what is the degree of awareness.
For the research question our team firstly looked at the legal definition of the food allergy, impact on society and requirements for greater awareness in the food industry for allergy sufferers. Was there sufficient awareness for members of the public regarding food allergies and food intolerances?
We also examined currently available methods using technology to assist the public regarding food allergies. Using the question how can technology raise food allergy awareness helped define the scope of our project and aided in keeping focus on the question.
Technology raise Food Allergy Awareness
We found that there is an abundance of information available regarding dietary allergies as this topic has been studied for thousands of years. However, there is a lack of awareness to this vital and potentially lifesaving information. The use of technological solutions can bridge the gap between food allergies and awareness. Our twin surveys identified interesting gaps in awareness that we felt needed to be addressed by both the customer and caterers.
We found that only 15% of our respondents who identified themselves as customers were aware of the EU legislation that protects customer’s right to information when dining out. In contrast, respondents who identified themselves as caterers demonstrated a 69% awareness of the legislation. This presents a significant gap in awareness levels between customers and caterers at 85% and 31% respectively of those who are required by the legislation to be aware. Customers must understand that it remains their right as presented in the legislation to have allergens documented in available menus for licensed premises.
In our research 52% of the surveyed population were concerned about the accuracy of information regarding allergens. However, there was a difference in opinion regarding whose responsibility it is to inform about the allergens on a menu. 50% of the respondents who identified themselves as customers felt that it is the responsibility of the caterers to inform about the allergens on the menu while the rest (50%) felt that it is their own responsibility to be self-informed. There is uncertainty about where the responsibility should lie.
Per EU legislation responsibility for providing this information lay with the caterers and the fact that nearly 70% of caterers who participated in the survey were aware of this legislation meant that they were aware of their accountability.
Per the results of our research just under half (47%) of customers who have food allergy carry their medication all the time. When focusing on those who carry medication 61% already had a serious reaction while dining out. The resulting information suggests that they were aware of the dangers involved in anaphylaxis. Furthermore, 39% of the respondents who had food allergy received medical attention due to a serious food allergy reaction. This fact shows how serious an anaphylaxis reaction can be. These situations could be avoided by raising awareness using technology among catering customers.
The most commonly used method of distributing information about allergies to the customer from a caterer was using an allergy book which was shown on request. However, 26% of customers found it hard to find allergens on a menu while 11% found it very hard. This shows that the system is inadequate and a better solution is required.
We already established that customers would pay for a service but there was a difference in opinion in which form of technology the customer would like the information to be delivered (website, mobile application or social media). The answer per our survey was that a mobile application would be the preferred technology solution as indicated by 50% of the customers who had food allergy followed by 41% for website based information. In contrast, 60% of the caterers felt that website based information is the preferred technology to provide information to their customer regarding allergens.
Surprisingly, only 19% of caterers were in favour of mobile application. This was interesting considering “86% of Irish consumers own or has access to a smartphone”. Hence, many Irish people are already in possession of an information medium.
The Food Safety Association of Ireland (FSAI) has a large online allergen repository that can be accessed by its online application MenuCal. This is a good example of how a technology system can incorporate both preferred platforms (mobile application and website based information) of customers based on our survey results. It is clear from our research that technological solution with good user experience would result in increasing awareness.
42% of our respondents claimed that their allergies do impact their social life. The quality of life could be improved for those 42% of food allergy sufferers by simply increasing awareness of their allergies. In addition, caterers that chose to display allergens on their menu could also be assisted by technology leading them to become a food allergy friendly establishment.
Our study has shown that there are technologies in existence today that can make the lives of dietary allergy sufferers better from both a social and medical perspective. The number one hindrance to these technologies is the lack of awareness. Our study has also shown that 69% of caterers are aware of the legislation that requires them to display all allergens in an appropriate manner. However, as the legislation is not enforced by auditing of licensed establishments the presentation of allergy information is of a lesser priority. In contrast, regular publications from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in regards to restaurant closure notices for primarily hygienic reasons demonstrate that an avenue exists for the enforcement capability.
Furthermore, one of our case study described that failure to comply with the legislation and neglect customer’s safety could lead to a prison sentence. Perhaps awareness of this serious consequence would alter their perspective on the importance of listing allergens. 33% of the respondents to our survey who identified themselves as customers felt that paying for a service that helped identify allergens would be acceptable. However, when the same question was answered by those respondents who were food allergy sufferers the figure rose to 60% willing to pay for such a service to help them identify allergens on a menu. We felt that this makes sense when we consider the risks involved in anaphylaxis as discussed in our literature review.
40% of the respondents who identified themselves as customers suffering from food allergy would be willing to increase the frequency of dining out if caterers increased the awareness of food allergens on their menus. This led to one of the most important findings in our research that the catering sector could benefit with a quantified increase of up to 68,000 customers in Ireland if they chose to list allergens on their menus.
When considering the potential impact this could have on the catering industry and their businesses it is apparent that there is an untapped resource of revenue that is being ignored. Being informed of this discovery may alter the catering industry’s view of displaying their allergens to promote revenue and will ultimately increase quality of service to their customers.
It is conceivably possible that in the future a technology will become available that allows the food allergy sufferer to identify, prevent and control their dietary allergies allowing a better quality of life and unburdening the catering industry. As demonstrated in our survey results, the availability of such a technology based solution would likely result in a high level of awareness.
A much needed and well overdue marketing campaign to highlight solutions for food allergy sufferers is crucial to increase awareness and educate both customers and caterers to their obligations. This solution would be further amplified by incorporating it into a user friendly and easily distributed technology to reach all levels of the market and society.
After extensive research and analysis in food allergies and associated technologies we concluded that there are technologies available to customers suffering from food allergies such as Nima Gluten Tester and Allergy Eats. There are applications available to caterers such as MenuCal. These technologies provide awareness and facilitate the allergy sufferer by predicting, controlling and preventing from allergic reactions. However, we discovered that there is no technology or application available to link the catering industry and customers, specifically those suffering from food allergies. This represents a major gap in technological solutions raising awareness and represents a significant market as quantified by our research.
A technology raise food allergy awareness through providing real-time information to both the customer and caterer simultaneously would help. This would create a transparent and beneficial relationship between them and alleviate the potential threats such as exposure, anaphylaxis, legal action and even death. During our analysis, we discovered that if the catering industry was to implement such a technology then they would potentially open their doors to an extra 68,000 allergy sufferers in Ireland. Furthermore, the caterers would benefit from increasing their revenue and ultimately having a positive impact on the social lives of food allergy sufferers.