• Teenagers and young adults are most at risk of severe reactions
  • 50% of children and young people have one or more allergy within the first 18 years of life
  • The UK is in the top three countries in the world with the highest incidence of allergy
  • Each year the number of allergy sufferers increases by 5% half of all affected are children and young people
  • In the last decade, the cases of food allergies have doubled and the number of hospitalisations caused by severe allergic reactions has increased seven-fold (EAACI, 2015)

Students who suffer from food allergies are at their “most vulnerable” when they start university, according to a pioneering university caterer.

Jacqui McPeake, who is the head of catering at Manchester Metropolitan University and a regional chair of TUCO (The University Caterers Organisation), says leaving home to go to university is a “very dangerous time” for food allergy sufferers, and caterers should be especially vigilant.

“Leaving home for the first time is life-changing for any young person but for those suffering from food allergies it can be a very dangerous time because they are having to manage their allergies for themselves. Prior to this, their parents probably cooked for them and did the food shopping, checking labels to ensure things are free from specific allergens. Peer pressure also has an influence as some allergy sufferers don’t want to feel different and may not take life-saving medication out with them.”

Country Range customer Jacqui, knows the full extent of the stress and anxiety that food allergies can have on students, as her daughter Sophie is severely allergic to gluten, lactose, potatoes and maize. She’s using her knowledge and expertise to lead a TUCO pilot to create a bespoke Code of Practice for managing food allergens on campus. The pilot was launched in July last year with 13 universities signing up, and the pilot group is due to feedback its thoughts this month. The main scheme will be launched later this year.

In the meantime, Jacqui is urging universities to gain Allergen Accreditation. MMU was one of the first universities in the country to successfully achieve the qualification. Getting the whole team on board is vital, says Jacqui. “I challenged my team to each give up one of the 14 food allergens for a month so that they could experience first hand what people with food allergies and intolerances have to face. I ended up with 24 volunteers and we raised over £1,000 for Allergy UK in the process, but it was a really interesting exercise. There are so many misconceptions surrounding food allergies. For example, some people think it’s a fad or that cooking will kill the allergen, but it’s actually a life-threatening condition and we need to deal with it in a serious way.”

Matt White, chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), commented: “The rise in food intolerances is already having a massive impact on the higher education sector. I was really quite shocked to hear that students with allergies are at the most risk when they first arrive at university because they don’t want to be singled out and also hate asking questions about what their food contains. This means there’s a great responsibility on the HE sector to make the information and food options they need readily available.”

The TUCO Academy offers two-day courses on allergen awareness which enable caterers to better understand procedures relating to communication of ingredient information and the characteristics of food allergies. For more information visit www.tuco.ac.uk. For more information on allergen accreditation visit www.allergenaccreditation.co.uk.

Jacqui’s tips for dealing with food allergies:

• Have a stand at Freshers Week to talk about food allergen awareness

• Meet with residential advisors on campus to identify students with food allergies

• Produce a daily allergen chart for all the dishes being served

• Hold a briefing before service to educate the counter staff

• Colour code utensils and allergen-free dishes (Jacqui uses the colour purple)

• Publish an online menu cycle

• Salad bars can be an area of crosscontamination so offer bespoke salad bowls for people with food allergies

• Train all staff in the use of EpiPens

• Ensure that full nutritional and allergen information is available

• If the recipe of a dish changes, ensure customers are informed