How do airlines and their suppliers ensure the passenger’s onboard experience is one which takes into account their complete wellbeing? In this, the third part of a comprehensive three-part series, Bernie Baldwin discusses the challenges that an airline catering operation faces

One of the benefits of good cabin humidity is the ability to taste things better, so the sustenance on offer can be appreciated properly. And while many passengers refresh themselves with the main menu, special food and beverage requirements are increasingly required to meet travellers’ allergies, dietary needs and religious provisos.

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A leader in delivering special meals is Creative Nature, whose founder and CEO, Julianne Ponan, began the company due to her own allergies. “I have anaphylaxis to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, chickpeas, lentils and more. Some of my allergies are airborne which makes flying a whole different ball game,” she explains. “I believe, however, that airlines can make a few changes to ensure the safety of people with allergies on board.

“The foods that cover the most airborne allergic reactions are peanuts, tree nuts and dairy. The reaction does differ per person depending on the severity of their allergy. For example, my allergy to peanuts and tree nuts is so severe that I cannot even shake hands with someone who has touched nuts without having a reaction. So if someone is eating nuts on board and then I sit in the same seat and touch the table/seating area, I could have a reaction,” Ponan adds.

“Airlines should not sell or serve peanut and tree nuts on flights as the cost of a diversion is over £80,000 per flight. I have created a snack that is not just peanut and tree nut free, but caters for the top 14 allergens, halal and kosher, meaning that airlines do not have to miss out on sales plus they have a delicious product inclusive to all passengers. Airlines need the safest options without carrying ‘may contain’ products,” she advises.

Triggers

Marc Warde, owner/director of another leader in the specialist meals field, Niche Free-from Kitchen, begins with a reminder of which foods trigger allergic reactions. “The seven most common food allergies are: eggs, cow’s milk, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat and soy, but there are many, many more,” he states.

“The World Allergy Organization has advised all airlines to stop serving nuts, but this has been broadly ignored. Nuts or peanuts are the most known allergy and if you have a severe nut allergy some airlines will ask people to refrain from eating nuts on board, some will not,” Warde reports.

“Most scheduled airlines offer special meals, but the codes for those are 34 years old, broadly out of date with modern dietary and allergy requirements, and ungoverned. We take a more modern approach to this, using modern dietary advice on medically required meals and our meals for allergy passengers are guaranteed to be free of the allergen,” he confirms. “We also combine allergy types as its entirely plausible – and even likely – that passengers can be gluten-free and diabetic or vegan for example. Or follow a religious diet, but also have a food allergy.”

Mention of vegan meals is important as there have been changes in the demand levels for these and vegetarian meals in recent times. “Veganism or plant-based eating has grown significantly in the last two years. Not only as a wish not to consume animal-derived product, but also for reasons of health and sustainability,” Warde comments. “Plant-based food sales were up 27% in 2020, topping $7 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association.

Ponan has also observed this rise, but notes, “Veganism is still a choice whereas having an allergy is a need state and this is growing year-on-year too, with 1 in 12 children now having a food allergy and there being a 75% increase in anaphylaxis hospital admissions. Having safer products on board though, free from the top 14 allergens, means by default that the product is vegan and vegetarian.

Religion

As for dealing with religious provisos, Ponan believes that at present, Halal and Kosher meals are more readily available than meals guaranteed free from the top 14 allergens. “The struggle is greater when looking for a religious meal and needing a specific dietary requirement,” she remarks.

The variation in religious provisos regarding what can or cannot be eaten is considerable. “IATA has codes for seven religious diets for which airlines will make some provision, though not necessarily for all of them,” Warde reports. “There are 4,700 recognised world religions, many of which have very specific eating requirements, which would be practically impossible to cater for. Muslim (halal) and Jewish (kosher) faiths are usually well catered, as broadly speaking a vegan/plant-based choice satisfies most other religious requirements. Jain and fruitarian diets are harder to cater for as numbers are very low and factually speaking, orthodox Jains wouldn’t be flying who require the diet. Buddhists, however, may also choose this diet rather than a vegan diet.”

With such a multitude of permutations, an airline catering operation has a tough job to decide what it can offer, given the finite limits on its budget and facilities – for example, nut-dust free, kosher, halal and so on.

Warde agrees. “It is almost impossible for airline or airport flight kitchens to safely produce allergen safe meals. Now that all ingredients have to be listed (Natasha’s Law, which requires all food outlets to provide full ingredient lists with clear allergen labelling on Pre Packed for Direct Sale (PPDS) foods), flight kitchens must mark foods as ‘may contain’ or have alibi labelling, rendering those meals entirely unsuitable for anyone with a food allergy,” he explains.

“Using specialist partners like us, who advise airlines and travel organisations on setting up policy and special meals, but also offer guaranteed allergen safe meals and modern dietary meal options, seems the only choice,” Warde continues. “This is a model learned from Japan where they have 28 listed allergens and have been using dedicated special meal providers for some years.

“Allergen laws, which differ worldwide, are increasing, as are allergies themselves. There has been a 300% increase in child food allergies in the last two years in the UK and Europe and a 370% rise in the US. It’s not going away.

Ponan agrees that there is only so much an airline can do to accommodate everyone while staying commercial. “This is why they need to rely on brands which guarantee a ‘no may-contain’ policy,” she emphasises.

“Looking for product that can caterer for multiple areas is key when budgets are limited as even though this product can be premium, it means an airline would not have to stop selling their bistro service because of a nut allergy. Instead they have an offering for all,” Ponan declares.

And that’s a situation every airline would surely prefer for passengers’ wellbeing.

Part One: Completely In The Comfort Zone – Part Two: Coming Up For Air

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