SINGAPORE: Dining out used to be a rare treat for mother-of-three Christine Low, who has two daughters allergic to eggs and peanuts.
“Most restaurants are not well informed about food allergies except for a few cafes, which are usually in town or cater to very niche groups and deep pockets,” she said, adding that she also avoided bringing her children to hawker centres when they were younger.
The situation improved for Ms Low as her children got older and became more aware of their condition. But things have also become better for her thanks to the increasing number of business owners who are happy to make special arrangements for customers with food allergies.
In fact, Ms Low, who founded social enterprise Bliss Restaurant, is one of them.
MOTIVATED BY EMPATHY
Diners at Bliss Restaurant who walk in with allergen requests are not greeted with a frown.
Instead, Ms Low said they gladly take on each request as a culinary challenge to better their knowledge. “Best of all, my experience increases my empathy for them, and we do allow them to bring in their own home-prepared food if we can’t accommodate their requests.”
She added that some of their wraps and pastas have a good following, and can easily be re-created to meet specific requests from customers.
Restaurant chain Swensen’s operates in a similar way. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Khoo also has two children with food allergies. Both his son and daughter are allergic to peanuts, and his son also has a fish allergy.
“If a customer comes in and highlights that they have an egg allergy, we can suggest an alternative sauce or dressing for them,” he said. “So instead of a salmon with pesto sauce, which contains egg, we can do it glazed with teriyaki sauce or salsa.”
The restaurant can also prepare egg-free versions of dishes like its chicken baked rice or fish and chips, said Mr Khoo. “It’s just a matter of using a different type of savoury rice, or preparing an egg-free batter for the fish and chips. Everything else would be baked and cooked as per normal, so we’re maintaining the same taste profile – and the same kind of dish – without the eggs.”
The restaurant chain has also tried to remove peanuts as far as possible from its dishes.
“Only our nasi lemak contains peanuts, and we have that at only two of our 25 outlets. We also manufacture our own ice cream and only our chocolate peanut buttercup flavour contains peanuts,” said Mr Khoo. "I hope to move in a direction where our restaurants will be completely peanut-free in the next one to two years.”
Mr Khoo plans to start labelling the presence of possible allergens like nuts and eggs in his restaurant’s menus in that same time frame, starting with the kids’ menu.
All this means that his children and others with allergies can tuck in with gusto – and peace of mind – at the restaurant. “They like the fried food, like kids usually do, and the cookies and cream ice cream."
At the fine dining restaurants run by the Unlisted Collection, staff take the initiative to ask about food allergies at the point of reservation. "When someone makes a reservation, we make it a point to check if that person has a food allergy and whether they have any dietary restrictions," said Mr Joel Ong, one of Unlisted Collection's general managers. "If someone says they have a severe allergic reaction to gluten, if we do take a reservation, we make sure that whatever is produced for our client is done in an environment that is, to the best of our ability, clean of any traces of gluten.
"We care about it as if we care about food poisoning. The quality, care and attention to detail is very specific and very strictly enforced," he added.
A DEFINITE INCREASE
This extra care taken by restaurateurs comes on the back of an increased awareness of food allergies around the world. Last month, a restaurant owner in the UK was jailed six years for the manslaughter of a customer with a peanut allergy.
More cases of children with food allergies are being reported worldwide, according to Dr Soh Jian Yi, a consultant from the National University Hospital’s Division of Paediatric Allergy, Immunology and Rheumatology. But while there is data from the US and UK, he said no information on this is currently available in Singapore.
But anecdotally, Dr Soh said there has been a “definite increase” in the number of children he and his colleagues have been seeing for food allergies.
“In any given month, we could see about three to five new patients, but in the last one year, it’s probably about twice that number,” he said, adding that peanut and egg allergies appear to be the most common.
The health implications of such allergies can be serious, he added. "Some foods are higher risk like peanuts and shellfish... and usually these people have rashes, swelling of the face and difficulty breathing."
Peanuts and other tree nuts have also been linked to fatal reactions in other countries, but Dr Soh said he has not seen any cases in Singapore.
MANAGING THE CONDITION
Eating out aside, schools also have measures in place to ensure those with food allergies are well taken care of, especially in preschools, where children are often too young to be aware of their allergies.
At all PAP Community Foundation (PCF) centres, information on children’s’ food allergies are shared with teachers and cooks, and also displayed at the dining areas and classrooms for ease of reference by all staff. “Staff also conduct routine checks on daily meals served to ensure that children do not consume food that they should not and suffer any adverse reaction,” said a spokesperson, adding that centres may also prepare separate snacks for children with such allergies during celebrations or special events, so they will not feel left out.
But as they get older and begin primary school, NUH’s Dr Soh said parents of those with food allergies need to make sure their child is aware of what he or she cannot consume. “This would also include important skills, like knowing what to do if a classmate offers a snack,” he said.
While school canteen stalls in all MOE schools are not required to label food ingredients, an MOE spokesperson said parents and schools will instruct students with known food allergies to check with the canteen operators to make sure that the food they buy does not contain ingredients they are allergic to.
Schools will also make necessary provisions with students’ parents and caterers to provide the appropriate food for camps or learning journeys, MOE added.
But while schools and businesses can help manage these allergies, Dr Soh said the final responsibility lies with the children, describing them as the “final gatekeeper”. “The best safeguard in the school is the child, because the parents can’t be there all the time.”