BBC Watchdog Live uncovers high street restaurants and coffee chains giving out incorrect allergy advice

An investigation by BBC Watchdog live has found leading restaurant and coffee shop chains to be giving out dangerous allergy advice.

Posing as customers with food allergies, undercover journalists secretly filmed staff at branches of Frankie and Benny’s, Pizza Hut, Nandos, Pizza Express, Starbucks and Costa.

By law cafes, restaurants and takeaways should be able to give customers clear information about which dishes contain allergens. None of the outlets visited had allergens listed on menus or labels, so customers must rely on staff being able to give accurate information.

Some restaurant chains now ask customers with allergies to sign a document that one staff member said is to “save our back,” reports the BBC.

BBC Watchdog Live uncovers high street restaurants and coffee chains giving out incorrect allergy advice

Shahida Shahid died from brain damage after suffering an allergic reaction in 2015
(Image: MEN Media)

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Rasel Shahid, the brother of Shahida Shahid , who died after being served a chicken burger marinated in buttermilk (despite telling restaurant staff about her dairy allergy) – says the findings underline the need for allergens to be printed on menus and labels.

In total, five out of the 30 outlets visited gave undercover journalists unclear or incorrect information, some of which was dangerously misleading.

In one Frankie and Benny’s restaurant, the undercover journalist told staff she had a celery allergy and enquired about Eggs Royale, which the company’s website says contains celery.

BBC Watchdog Live uncovers high street restaurants and coffee chains giving out incorrect allergy advice

At a Frankie and Benny’s, the Watchdog reporter was asked to agree to terms and conditions that state the restaurant can never guarantee that a dish is completely free of any allergen – except for gluten
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At a second Frankie and Benny’s, the reporter was asked to agree to terms and conditions that state Frankie and Benny’s can never guarantee that a dish is completely free of any allergen – except for gluten. The server told the reporter the form “saves our back.”

At one Costa Coffee, the reporter asked for a mince pie they knew contained milk; however, even after thoroughly consulting the allergy book they were told it contained soya milk.

Tony Lewis from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health says this is the result that worried him the most.

While in a branch of Pizza Hut, a reporter asked if its mac n’ cheese contained mustard (which is listed as an ingredient on the company’s website). A member of staff showed the reporter a book containing allergy advice, but neither the reporter nor the staff member could understand the information in the book. Next, the reporter asked if the pepperoni pizza contains mustard (again it is listed as an ingredient online) but was told the member of staff couldn’t give him any more information than that listed in the allergy book – which again was unclear.

BBC Watchdog Live uncovers high street restaurants and coffee chains giving out incorrect allergy advice

Costa also came under investigation
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At one branch of Nando’s, the reporter asked if a burger contained mustard. The server guessed it didn’t, but when the allergen book was checked it did in fact contain Mustard.

Pizza Express was found to be the only chain to give accurate advice in each of the five branches visited; while in one branch of Starbucks the advice was ambiguous, with a staff member initially telling the reporter the item he’d chosen – a lemon loaf cake with almonds in the ingredients – did not contain nuts, but ultimately advising there was still a risk of nut contamination.

After being presented with Watchdog’s findings Tony Lewis, Head of Policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said: “Five is a significant number and if you scale it up nationally, it becomes a very, very large number indeed. And that’s worrying, that there’s businesses out there that will be asked by people with allergies for information, and they’re not being given the right information or they’re being misled in some instances. That’s really scary and that’s what bothers me a lot.”

Watchdog Live presenter Steph McGovern, said: “Five out of 30 places got it wrong which, for some of the biggest names in the business, just isn’t good enough. They’re relying on staff getting it right every time, and when they don’t, the results can be fatal. But there’s a simple solution that would save lives – printing allergy information on labels and menus.”

The findings come three weeks after Watchdog Live found supermarket bakery counters giving dangerous allergy information, prompting Sainsbury’s and Asda to pledge to introduce allergy labels on all in-store bakery products.

The full report on allergens information provided in restaurants and coffee shops can be seen on Watchdog Live on Wednesday 28 November at 8pm on BBC One.

How the restaurants responded

Frankie and Benny’s, owned by The Restaurant Group, said in a statement : “We are deeply concerned by the incident raised by Watchdog and have acted swiftly to reinforce our already strict procedures. We fully understand the need for detailed food information and take our obligations on allergens extremely seriously. It is clear that on this occasion our very strict procedures were not followed and we are focused on ensuring it cannot happen again. We have fully reviewed our allergens training for staff across all our restaurants and will further strengthen the independent audits, which are regularly conducted across our restaurant estate, to ensure our guests receive a consistently high standard of response. Guests with allergies are urged to check our website before visiting, where they will find detailed information on allergens contained in every dish, and then discuss any concerns or questions with our fully trained staff.”

The Restaurant Group also runs Coast to Coast; a spokesperson commented: “We do not view allergy advice as a disclaimer nor do we ask guests to waiver their rights. We want to ensure that guests’ allergies are communicated thoroughly to us so we can take appropriate care when preparing meals and provide clear advice where there may be allergens present.

“Our allergy advice is consistent across our business, detailing the risks of the catering environment, such as those with suppliers and cross contamination, and what we ultimately can and cannot guarantee our guests.”

A Nando’s spokesperson said: “In order to make sure everyone can enjoy a delicious PERi-PERi meal that is safe for them to eat, we ask our restaurant managers to personally handle orders for anyone who has an allergy. This way, they can take the customer through the menu specifications, and process their order from start to finish. We’re sorry that on this occasion this process wasn’t followed perfectly. As a matter of priority, we have since reminded all our employees of the processes in place and their importance. If anyone would like to research the menu before coming into a restaurant then please check our Nando’s website and app for allergy information but we would still encourage allergy sufferers to speak to a manager before they order.”

A Pizza Hut Restaurants spokesperson told Watchdog: “Ensuring the welfare of our guests is extremely important to us. All of our allergen and nutritional information is available in a printed book in each of our restaurants and also online. All of our staff receive specialist training, however due to the variety of ingredients used within the restaurant menu, and the diverse range of enquiries, we do direct guests to check the information for themselves through the formats available.

“In this specific instance the information in the book provided was correct, but we have taken the feedback on board and added QR codes to our menu cards this week which link through to all of our nutritional information. The next edition of the nutritional book will also be printed in a larger text and available in Huts from the New Year.”

A Costa Coffee spokesperson said: “At Costa Coffee, we take the health and wellbeing of our customers extremely seriously and are committed to providing our customers with all the information they need to make informed choices, including allergy and nutritional information. All our pre-packaged food is labelled with allergy and nutritional information. There is a sticker on each cake counter which directs customers to our store teams for further information and each store has a guide detailing the allergy and nutritional information for every Costa Coffee product.

“All our store teams receive training on how to communicate allergen information, however, on this occasion, the team member failed to follow correct procedure and provided the wrong information. This is clearly unacceptable and we have re-issued guidance and best practice to all stores as part of our ongoing commitment to train and develop our teams to help customers make informed choices based on their needs.”

Starbucks said in a statement: “Our customers’ safety and well-being is, and will always be, our highest priority. In this instance, we fell short on this commitment and did not meet our own high standards, which include consulting the allergen manual found in each store. All our baristas are trained to support customers with specific allergy and dietary needs, and allergen information is also available on our website to help customers make the right decisions for themselves. We have addressed this issue with our team at the store in question, and we have been in touch with all of our UK stores to reinforce our standards and expectations. We are also working on making ingredient information clearer and more accessible to customers.

BBC Watchdog Live airs Wednesday 28th November at 8pm on BBC One