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Coffee lovers' nut milk allergy fears prompt cross contamination warnings

Patrick Sawer
Barista preparing coffee with steamed milk - www.alamy.com

The growing fashion for vegan milks has left thousands of nut allergy sufferers unable to order their favourite lattes and flat whites at Britain's biggest coffee chains, it emerged this week.

A decision by Costa Coffee not to use separate equipment when making coffee drinks using nut based milks, such as almond, cashew and hazelnut, has left allergy sufferers at risk of coming into contact with potentially deadly traces of the nuts.

Notices in some Costa branches now inform customers: “Due to customer demand for a wider choice of milk and dairy alternatives to complement our coffees, we have expanded our range to include an Almond Dairy Alternative and lactofree Semi Skimmed.

“The introduction of these may pose a potential risk of cross contamination of allergens via our coffee machines and other shared equipment and may not be suitable for those with severe allergies.”

Similar warnings are on display at other coffee chains, such as Starbucks, even though at some branches staff made drinks using the same equipment despite being told by a customer they suffered a nut allergy. At others they admitted they could not guarantee there would not be cross contamination.

Costa Coffee says it cannot guarantee nut allergy sufferers there is no cross-contamination Credit: Jason Alden/© 2010 Bloomberg Finance LP

That has forced people who run the risk of suffering an anaphylactic reaction to nuts to look elsewhere for what would be regarded as normal dairy-based drinks such as Cappuccinos or lattes.

Similarly, people who suffer a severe dairy intolerance may fear they cannot risk a coffee from coffee chains in case the machine and steamer rod employed carry traces of dairy milk from previous use.

Current best practice employed by Costa and Starbucks states that on being told by a customer they suffer a nut allergy, staff should ensure the jugs are freshly washed, ensure a brand new pack of cloths are used to clean the steam arm and purge the steam arm to ensure there are no deposits of any alternative milks remaining.

However not all of these measures appeared to have been implemented at various branches of the coffee chains visited by this newspaper last week, despite our reporter informing staff he suffered a nut allergy. 

At several branches the same jug was used without being washed and staff did not use a fresh pack of cloths to wipe the steam wand. It was a similar picture at a number of Starbucks branches visited by this newspaper.

Costa has admitted that even if its best practice is followed by staff “there is always a risk of cross contamination in our business”.

That has left some of their potential customers furious at not being able to order a coffee for fear of suffering a severe allergic reaction.

Melanie Bryan, a magazine picture archivist who suffers from a severe nut allergy, complained to Costa that their policy discriminates against customers like her after she was left unable to buy a coffee from its Farnborough Park drive-thru, in Hampshire, because of the risk of cross-contamination.

An employee pours milk whilst making a coffee at a Costa Coffee shop in London Credit: Simon Dawson/© 2010 Bloomberg Finance LP

In an email she told the high street firm: “I have anaphylactic reactions to peanuts and have a heightened allergy to other nuts. I have had this allergy for almost 50 years and am, no thanks to the food industry, thankfully still alive. 

“I’ve got used to less and less options when it comes to food, but to now be told I can’t even have a latte due to a fashion is mind blowing.  The consequence of this is people like myself with nut allergies now cannot get something as simple as a latte in any of your establishments without the fear of cross contamination.”

In response to her complaint Costa told Ms Bryan: “There is less risk with our hot drinks because we use different jugs for each type of milk. It is important to note though that if you suffer from severe allergies there is still a risk of cross contamination due to shared equipment, such as the steam arm. 

“Our procedures have been reviewed and updated which we have issued communication to our teams on the importance of thorough practice of our whole allergen procedures.”

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died aged 15 after suffering an allergic reaction to sesame seeds in a Pret A Manger baguette

The parents of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, the teenager died after an allergic reaction to a Pret A Manger baguette, criticised Costa’s attitude.

Her father, Nadim Ednan-Laperouse, of the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, said:  "Costa's practices pose a clear risk of cross contamination for customers with both nut and dairy allergies. Steam nozzles are difficult to clean, and a quick wipe down with a cloth is not good enough. In the most severe cases it could lead to someone losing their life.

"Pret a Manger, as part of their allergens review following Natasha's inquest last year, stopped selling almond milk for that very reason, replacing it with oat milk. Costa should now follow suit.” 

A Starbucks spokesperson said: “Our customers’ safety and wellbeing is always our highest priority. All our baristas are trained to support customers with specific allergy and dietary needs. Starbucks cannot guarantee that any of our hand-crafted beverages are allergen-free because we use shared equipment to prepare and serve them.”

A barista places a coffee on to a serving tray in a Costa Coffee shop Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Costa Coffee said: "Following the introduction of milk alternatives we have worked hard to ensure the right equipment and training is in place to minimise the risk to those customers who suffer from allergens. 

"As part of our allergen policy we instruct teams to use a clean jug and fresh cloth for drink preparation, however, we are mindful that our coffee machines and steam arms are used for both dairy and milk alternative hot drinks. Due to this we cannot guarantee that the risk of cross-contamination can be completely removed and, indeed, it would be irresponsible of us to do so."

It added: "We have taken many steps, including increased signage in stores, to ensure our customers are provided with the relevant information about our products and how they will be prepared.  This allows customers to make an informed decision as to whether or not it is safe for them to consume any particular item. We were disappointed and concerned to learn that our policy had not been followed in this instance and have taken immediate action with those stores visited and have reissued guidance to all our stores.”

Additional reporting by Jack Taylor

Varying standards at coffee chain branches over allergy precautions

Barista at Costa preparing a coffee Credit: RayArt Graphics / Alamy Stock Photo

A reporter from The Telegraph visited several coffee chains only to be told at several branches that there was no problem ordering a milk based coffee, even though he had just informed them he suffers from a nut allergy.

In some branches staff advice was in direct contradiction to the warning signs displayed nearby. In other venues no such signage was visible to customers.

At the Embankment Place Costa the reporter told a barista he had a severe nut allergy and asked if it was safe for him to have a latte, and received the reply: “Yes, that’ll be £2.55....”

The drink was made with the same machine and milk steamer used to serve every other customer, leading to potential cross contamination with traces of nut-based milks.

It was the same story at a branch in Victoria Station, where he was told it was fine for him to have a “small latte”, even though he had informed staff he suffered a nut allergy. That advice came despite the sign warning customers of potential cross-contamination being prominently on display.

The best service was at Canary Wharf Costa, in east London, where four allergy information signs where displayed around the tills. Here the barista called her manager, who proceeded to ask the reporter about his allergy to almonds and peanuts.

He then washed his hands thoroughly before cleaning a machine and jug to then make the reporter a latte.

The manager then reminded his staff to call him and check whenever a customer raised concerns over an allergy.

At the Costa in Lewisham, south London, the reporter asked if he was safe to have a latte after informing the barista he was severely allergic to nuts and was told: “Yeah that’s fine, we can just make it with normal milk for you.”

Without warning the reporter that there was a risk of cross-contamination, as stated on signs around the branch, the barista proceeded to make the drink using the same machine and jug as was used for everyone else’s orders without washing it specially.

At Starbucks in Victoria station the reporter was shown an allergy table in response to asking about its nut allergy. The semi-skimmed latte was made with what appeared to be a new jug and the cloth was changed.

However, at another Starbucks nearby the barista continued to make latte with same equipment as before, using the same cloth and jug as was used for previous orders, which could have potentially included ones made with almond milk.