Far Eastern Odyssey - or Idiocy?

You have a few weeks from the date at the top of this blog to catch up with Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey, Episode 2, originally broadcast in 2009, and repeated this weekend, in which the well-known chef discusses food allergies with a friend and former colleague, Tom Kine, while eating street food in Hanoi. The segment starts at around 39 minutes. Click here for the BBC iPlayer link - but here's an edited transcript. 

TK: " ... Vietnamese food ... is very, very healthy. There's no wheat, there's no dairy ... high protein, high vitamin ... fresh herbs .... it's become very popular ... "

RS: "Do you think the Vietnamese would have food allergies, then?"

TK: "No, I don't think there are any food allergies in the third world. I think there are only allergies in the first world because we choose to be faddy. These people have had so many years of famine, they'll just eat whatever's available."

RS: "So you don't think they need to put a note saying 'Some of our products contain nuts'?"

TK: "No, I don't think so."


The Sunday-night allergy and free-from crowd have already discussed the issue on Twitter, and this morning Allergy Mums blogged on it. Her blog clearly demonstrates the frustration and concern such incidents cause mothers of allergic children. It was particularly worrying that the context for the discussion was peanuts, in part. 

As I said last night, the danger of such material being broadcast is it risks trivialising food allergies in the eyes of those who we would hope are aware enough to offer protection to us and our children - nursing staff, waiting staff, teachers and babysitters, for example. All it takes is one person, perhaps already sceptical about the rise in food hypersensitivities and the attention it is garnering, to be 'tipped over' into thinking they are essentially nonsense, to put someone under their care at potential risk.

In only partial mitigation, the programme is five years' old. Yes, chefs should know better now, but should they have known better that long ago? Really those who should know best of all is the programme's editors, who should have snipped that segment and dropped it onto the cutting room floor, and the current BBC2 schedulers, who should have reviewed the material prior to broadcast. Perhaps they did - if so, I'm baffled why they didn't catch the dangerous information. 

Alexa of YesNoBananas commented that this reiterated the need for compulsory allergen training among all in the food industry - which I agree with. She also uncovered that Kine had worked with highly allergy aware brand Ilumi

To add some further thoughts: I'm surprised that Kine appears to partly indulge in the notion that Vietnamese food is healthy because it is free of wheat and dairy - two of the greatest Western allergens - which are harmless to most people and a key source of good nutrition to many of them in wholesome forms (e.g. wholegrain spelt, probiotic natural yoghurt). It is in the overindulgence in the junk or fast food in which these foods are typically found - cakes, biscuits, cheeseburgers, pizzas etc - where unhealthiness lies. Perhaps compulsory nutritional training for chefs would also be a good idea?

Further, the shame of all this is that, while we all know that allergies affect 'first world' countries to a serious degree, not enough know that, increasingly, they are becoming an issue in developing nations - about which the programme was also mistaken. Several years ago I rewrote my Living with Food Allergies book for the Asian and African markets, such was the need, according to my publisher, for it. At the time, I covered the huge problem of food allergy in India for Foods Matter

And in Vietnam itself? It's taken a bit more digging, but yes, allergies are there. Here is a report of a curious case of childhood milk/GOS allergy, and here's an older study outlining how overweight children in Vietnam are more susceptible to allergy

So in our frustration that insulting material like this is still getting broadcast, let's not forget that - with adrenaline injectors at our disposals, and ever-improving food labelling - we have it a lot better than the developing nations, whose increasingly Westernising diets appear to be correlating with a rise in all kinds of allergic disease, and whose medical and market infrastructure may not be best equipped to cope with it now, or for some years to come. 

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