Monday, 16 July 2012

Hospitality or Hospital?

This has been a thorn in my side ever since I have had to be on a gluten free diet. I apologise in advance as this is going to be quite a wordy post, but I just want to get this off my chest. The hospitality sector, that is. That's right folks, hotels, B&B's, restaurants, you name it, it inevitably turns into a struggle to get those who are running their establishment to understand exactly what being a person who can not eat gluten actually entails in terms of safe food preparation. My own frustrations led to my own attempt at collating places that are suitable to dine at on my 'Eat Out' page. However, before I begin my rant, I would like to point out that there are indeed some exceptional exceptions (they're that exceptional!), to my above complaint who are utterly attentive when dealing with coeliacs and gluten free folk alike.

It seems to me that the overall majority of folk who operate in the hospitality sector are pretty well-up on food allergies, such as a nut allergy, dairy allergy or even, to a certain extent, a wheat allergy. However when it comes to having a gluten intolerance or coeliac disease the hospitality sector in Ireland, in the vast scheme of things, catastrophically fails the gluten free population of this country.

A fine example of this is when I was staying in a B&B recently and we had called in advance to let them know of my dietary requirements. Upon arrival, the owners double checked with what I could eat and I thought no more of it until the following morning when they served up my gluten free bread in the same basket as 'normal' bread. The interesting thing was that the majority of people who were staying that night and who were dining with us the following morning, coincidentally, either had coeliac disease or gluten intolerance, with the exception of my husband and two other folks at the table. All of us had to explain to the owner about cross-contamination and had to return our breakfasts. The weird thing is, that the owner said they had a close relative who has coeliac disease and that's why there was gluten free bread readily available!?! How can they have someone in their family with coeliac, work in the hospitality industry and not know about how important it is to keep the food preparation area free of cross-contaminating gluten containing foods,  let alone serve gluten free food lumped together on the same dish with it's gluten containing equivalent?

This is just one of many, many, many, many (ad infinitum) instances in the hospitality sector I have come across. It is so painful and I feel so cringeworthy and like such a nuisance that I have to explain exactly what I need, when I thought it was already clear. How fussy do I seem?? People who don't understand, don't realise the health implications of essentially poisoning the food I'm eating with gluten. A person with a nut allergy wouldn't be served a meal with a sprinkling of peanuts on their dish (at least I'd hope they wouldn't!), so why is it that there is such little understanding with those who have coeliac or gluten intolerance in this country??

Hotels are the worst culprits. There are some hotels who really know what they're doing when catering to gluten free diets, but in the majority they fall short. I have to always bring a 'back-up' meal to a hotel. People who have no choice to be on a restrictive diet should not have to bring their own food to established commercial hospitality venues. Especially when the venue has been called in advance and given information regarding dietary needs. In this day in age, you'd think it's a right of living to be able to consume food that has been safely prepared in a commercial hospitality venue. You'd think... 

Instead, in my experience, I'm faced with either ill-prepared food or no option at all. I appear to be a 'difficult' customer and sometimes I am met with outright hostility, incredulity or blank stares when I'm explaining my diet. I have to always ensure that I have my 'meds' when I go out, because if I am glutened, I am immediately nauseous and the after effects can last for weeks or months, depending on my gluten exposure. I'm a walking pharmacy!

I can only guess as to why the hospitality sector in Ireland is so poor regarding gluten free diets. I do know that the whole industry needs education on the subject. I can only give my voice and opinion regarding gluten free living as that is the world I live in. I suspect there are other allergies out there that are not being addressed properly as well. I have a friend who suffers from a garlic allergy and when she consumes garlic she is unbelievably sick. Yet, she has the same difficulty in the hospitality and catering sectors. Waiting staff and venues more often than not, do not grasp the seriousness of her allergy. Why is this such a problem? Ireland has one of the biggest coeliac populations per capita in the world and it has the weakest understanding of this in the commercial hospitality sector. Italy is also considered to have one of the biggest coeliac populations in the world too, but they are so clued in!! They have no problem providing tasty gluten free options to their customers. 

I know the hospitality industry is having a tough time in this economy. However, addressing this issue could surely open up new sources of revenue to an ever-increasingly enlightened consumer base that have no problem reporting good or bad experiences on online review sites. I can only pray that someone takes this issue by the reins and educates the Irish hospitality industry and gives it a proper overhaul so that there is understanding across the board to those businesses. I keep dreaming!



Note on Gluten Intolerance & Coeliac Disease:

- Coeliac Disease is NOT a food allergy. It is an autoimmune disease. Gluten triggers an immune reaction in people with coeliac disease.

- Gluten intolerance can cause intestinal damage and can also attack any other organ of the body, similar to coeliac disease.

- People with gluten intolerance can have the same symptoms as coeliac disease and there is the same long term risk associated with coeliac disease.

- There are those who believe that gluten intolerance and coeliac disease are both the same and would like to see the label 'gluten intolerance' no longer used
as it makes it seem less serious and is not. The need to be strictly gluten free for life is the same for both.



UPDATE: There is an edited version of this blog published on The Journal.ie site. You can view it here: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/coeliac-disease-hotels-ireland-544568-Aug2012/


UPDATE 02/05/2013: Every business that is involved in catering in any way (hotels/B&Bs/restaurants/producers/etc.), needs to read this article & get it right for the those who have special dietary requirments. http://www.bighospitality.co.uk/Special-Features/Dietary-requirements/Dietary-requirements-Everything-you-need-to-know