Foodservice operators will now be able to independently monitor the customer experience of allergy sufferers eating in their establishments through a mystery shopper-style service launched today.
Food safety consultancy NT Assure has collaborated with independent compliance audit firm Serve Legal to develop the ‘Customer Experience Allergen Audit’, which is currently being trialled with selected operators, including Mitchells & Butlers.
The audit gives operators a means to independently evaluate and, where necessary, improve staff training, allergen labelling, communication and operational performance around allergens.
Using unannounced mystery diners, the audit measures how customers with allergies and dietary conditions are made to feel when eating out and how safe they believe they are when being guided by a brand’s information and staff.
According to the Food Standards Agency, young people are at greatest risk of severe consequences from allergen ingestion – a fact that 43% of young people, including allergy sufferers, surveyed by Serve Legal in 2019, were unaware of.
Serve Legal’s community of almost 2,800 auditors aged between 18 and 25-years-old will be deployed to food businesses across the UK and Ireland.
Posing as allergy sufferers, or in some instances, as genuine sufferers, auditors will present as diners or food-to-go customers, ask staff questions about food preparation, ingredients and cross-contamination and will order and eat a meal or food-to-go item.
They will also observe hygiene ratings, the display of allergy information, table and seating cleaning practices, and will report back on the customer experience throughout.
Tim Betts, CEO and Founder of NT Assure, said: “Confidence and trust are vital to positive customer experience, not just in the safe preparation and handling of food but in the way information about allergens is communicated by staff and in the way those with allergies are treated when eating out.
“The National Food Hygiene Rating System is likely to expand its scoring system to directly include ‘confidence in allergen management’ as well as process and practice around allergens in the next 18 months.
“This new audit provides operators with multiple opportunities – to find out what’s working well and amplify it, and to identify what’s not working and change it for the better. It demonstrates responsible retailing, supports best hygiene ratings and improves operational performance.”
Mitchells & Butlers is one of the first to trial the audit among its portfolio of pub and restaurant brands.
It has so far found that customers have a positive experience around allergens, with diners offered a range of ways to locate information on paper and online.
Staff were knowledgeable about pointing out where to find allergen information and served correct orders, avoiding allergenic ingredients.
In the retail sector, national retailer Scotmid Co-operative is signed up to the new allergen audit for its food-to-go operation and trials are underway with Dunelm and other national operators.
Additionally, Serve Legal and NT Assure have published five key warning signs that indicate that food operators should review their practices around allergens. They include:
– Mis-communication between staff and diners/customers that leads to allergen complaints.
– Staff are inconsistent with their response when asked by customers about allergens.
– Printed and online allergen information for customers is out of date and/or inaccurate.
– Cross-contamination occurs during food preparation and service, for example, using the same utensils or equipment for different food types.
– Staff are giving uninformed advice on allergens when chatting with customers.