LiberEat Interview with Simon Williams, Chief Executive of Anaphylaxis UK

At LiberEat, we’re always eager to speak with food safety leaders and game-changers, sharing their thoughts on the industry’s current state and future developments. 

In this interview, we were delighted to sit with Simon Williams, the Chief Executive of Anaphylaxis UK.

Since Simon entered the role in 2021, the charity has undergone some rapid and exciting changes, as seen with the introduction of the Anaphylaxis UK Business Forum, of which LiberEat is a proud member.

Anaphylaxis UK Business Forum logo

This forum allows industry members to stay current on regulatory changes, learn from one another, and share their insights.

Please read our interview to learn more about the forum and Anaphylaxis UK’s future and current plans!

What is Anaphylaxis UK's current strategic goal, and how does this goal align with current food safety and allergen management needs?

Anaphylaxis UK is all about helping people live their everyday lives. 

People with allergies should not live in fear, and their allergies should not prevent them from doing the things we all take for granted, like going to a restaurant, on holiday, having a picnic, going to the beach, and enjoying themselves. 

Unfortunately, many people face barriers presented by where they’re going or their environment through a need for improved training or awareness. 

Throughout their childhood, many food-hypersensitive consumers will have been taught not to come into contact with whatever they’re allergic to. It instils an understandable anxiety that makes some people too nervous to do these things that we’ve mentioned and all take for granted. That’s not right. 

Anaphylaxis UK is all about helping people at every touch point in their lives, whether at nursery, at school, into adulthood, going into a restaurant, or having contact with any business.

You mention the challenges of shopping or eating out. Do you think food businesses fully appreciate the anxiety that food-hypersensitive consumers face?

We shouldn’t make a broad assumption when discussing food businesses because some do food safety and allergens very well. The doors are open for a lot of companies we work with. We’re talking to dedicated, knowledgeable, and passionate people about doing the right thing for consumers. 

Unfortunately, however, many others still don’t get it. It’s either because it’s endemic in us as a nation that many people think it’s just a customer being a fussy eater or somebody is being awkward. 

Some businesses consider allergen safety unimportant, and some don’t appreciate how an individual may feel when living with allergies or being treated differently. 

As a customer, you might be told to wait for the manager or to sit in the corner and generally do things you wouldn’t expect. A food business may even ask a customer to sign a waiver, or they will be turned away for no justifiable reason other than the restaurant not knowing what to do or how to serve their needs. There’s definitely a broad spectrum when it comes to businesses and their handling of allergies.

It’s encouraging, however, that so many businesses are committed to learning and advancing, and we want to bring everybody on that journey. 

Whether it’s the fish and chip shop down the road, the pizza parlour, a national chain of restaurants, or a well-known food brand, we should all try our best. 

We need to ensure that people with allergies are always positively welcomed and that restaurants have the correct training policies and procedures in place. We also want staff to be sympathetic and understanding and not feel anxious about helping those with allergies. 

There are a lot of people with allergies, and every single one of them is a customer. 

If you view it that way, you wouldn’t want to deny your service or product to many people. Customers with allergies may also bring their families and friends. There are a lot of potential customers out there, and when they find somewhere they like and trust, they will return time after time. 

Is it safe to assume that every Anaphylaxis UK business forum member is proactive and wants to do better?

Yes, very much so. We also welcome people who don’t know what they want and are looking for answers because that’s what we’re here for. We’re not always here to preach to the good. We want to support people looking for answers, often in the same way members of the public are.

One of the reasons it’s so very important for us to produce factual information that goes through a rigorous process of checking with clinicians and real experts is because there’s a lot of information out there that’s misleading and potentially dangerous. There’s a huge appetite amongst people to find out ‘what this means for me, how is this going to impact my life, and how can I get on with things?’. The same can be said for businesses; they’ll look around for answers and often stumble upon sources that aren’t quite right. 

At Anaphylaxis UK, we ensure we’re available and accessible to everybody to give them the help and support they need. If we can help businesses, then we’re helping our beneficiaries (those with allergies) go to the restaurant that turned to us for support and information.

What is the biggest challenge that Anaphylaxis UK as a charity is facing right now in working towards achieving those goals?

I suppose one thing we all face in life is that there’s so much we want to do, but there’s only so much capacity in our ability to do it. It can be very frustrating, but we want to get on and do as much as possible. 

One of the biggest challenges is that too many people and businesses don’t understand the impact of allergies as seriously as they should. Donations and corporate support are crucial to us for this reason.

People with allergies are even treated as the butt of the joke sometimes, as we’ve seen in advertising, so there’s an attitude that we have to work around to get people to take it seriously. That’s a significant step, but it’s the first step.

How can food safety-focused organisations like the Anaphylaxis UK Business Forum members assist you in overcoming that?

One of the primary purposes of the Business Forum is to exchange information. 

It was set up because many businesses said they had similar issues with their training and getting information, so getting everyone together made sense. 

Twelve months ago, we had about a dozen businesses in the same room talking about allergens and things they have in common. Now, about 40-60 businesses get together every quarter. There’s a lot of learning and information exchange. 

Somebody might say, ‘We’re looking to revise our training program,’ and someone else might say, ‘Oh, we’re also doing that,’ so I’d encourage them to work together with us. Then, we can advise and provide that guidance, sharing people’s experiences working with, shopping with, or using that business.

What do you think has been the testament to the rapid growth of the Anaphylaxis UK Business Forum?

I hope the reason is quite simple and that it’s because people want to do the right thing and don’t necessarily know how to do it, and we’re providing that platform. 

We can’t always give the answers, but there’s usually an answer in the room. Because of the mix and diversity of businesses, somebody will have the expertise you’re looking for. We have big, well-known, high-street brands and other less well-known businesses, such as suppliers, manufacturers, and testing companies. It’s a room full of real experts with a huge amount of knowledge and experience going back many decades. 

We’re here to support the organisations and the individuals within them who may feel isolated. These big companies may have the resources, staff, and experts working for them, but I don’t want them to feel like they’re working alone. We’re certainly here to help, but since we’ve had these forums running, we’ve also noticed that people benefit enormously from networking and knowing someone else going through a similar challenge. I’ve also got to say that you ask how businesses can support us. We encourage them to get in touch to explore partnering with us to support our work.

What educational programmes do you offer to raise awareness and educate consumers and food industry professionals about anaphylaxis?

We have a very comprehensive website that is growing rapidly. It has over 45 fact sheets, which we’ve developed into other formats, such as videos, infographics, and animations. If you’re a bit like me and don’t like to read loads of stuff and prefer podcasts, for example, making this information accessible in their preferred format is something I consider to be an essential part of education. 

Our new education and AllergyWise manager, Tracy Dunn, a former Executive Headteacher, is taking the lead on all this great work and looking at how we can further develop our formal education training programme, AllergyWise, which is mainly for schools. 

We have a successful ‘Safer Schools’ programme for school staff. When speaking about staff, it’s important to realise I don’t just mean teachers because we want to ensure we train all staff members. If that first aid trainer, head teacher, or whoever’s trained in this area isn’t in that day or unavailable for whatever reason, that’s no good, so you need all staff trained. 

Our training programme is very different to what others provide because we also have lesson plans and assembly plans, and we have off-the-shelf pre-planned lessons that teachers can use to educate their children. We also help them with their policies and procedures; we help them ensure that children with allergies, usually one or two in each class, are involved in all school activities, such as trips and sporting activities, rather than being excluded. By working with them, we try to ensure that we don’t have an ‘allergy table’ where all the kids with allergies have to sit away from their friends. Schools are supposed to be a safe, fun and sociable environment, after all. 

For businesses, we also have an AllergyWise programme for the workplace

Many people have said, ‘I’ve been working from home for ages, and I’m quite happy in my environment where I know the food here is safe. Now I’m being asked to come back into the office, and I’m hot desking, I’m sharing a kitchen, and I’m really nervous’, which is a big part of why we developed our AllergyWise programme. We want to help educate and inform everyone in the workplace that those with allergies may be rather anxious about entering that kind of work environment without safeguards in place.

Tell us about your support for businesses and how the Business Membership and group forum work.

Anaphylaxis UK can support businesses by starting with its business membership, which opens the door to the Business Forum. 

This allows engagement with other businesses and peers in the industry, such as healthcare professionals, those working in health & safety, quality assurance and brand leads. The forum is a beneficial way to obtain information and support. We also have a monthly newsletter that gives people up-to-date information and informs them of any industry changes we’re aware of. 

One of the important things about Anaphylaxis UK is that we try to break that barrier that often exists between science, clinicians, medics, businesses, and the public. We blur those boundaries as much as we can. In a recent business forum, for example, we talked about developments in medicines and why they are important. Some of the new medicines that are being developed, known as immunotherapy, can help people tolerate allergens such as peanuts. Those sorts of things are coming along at pace, and in the longer term view of larger businesses, it’s something they need to consider. We have regular conversations about things like this, and business members are in the room when the Food Standards Agency updates us on upcoming policies and legislation. 

Our recent business forum addressed precautionary allergen labelling, so we wonder how this will impact a business’s operations. As far as we possibly can, we keep people updated with what’s happening.

Is it safe to say that the world of allergens is constantly changing? Food safety or quality assurance managers have a lot to keep abreast of.

It’s evolving rapidly, and I think it’s happening because organisations like ours are spotlighting this significant issue. There are rapid developments in policy, medicine, and people’s attitudes. More people are willing to talk about their allergies with waiting staff, for example, but there are still many people who don’t want to do that. Just having that knowledge and keeping abreast of things is incredibly important. I can’t emphasise enough to people that you’re not alone; come to us, join our group and have conversations about allergies and allergen processes.

Things like Anaphylaxis Awareness Week are so essential as well. 

Logo for Anaphylaxis UK's 'Anaphylaxis Awareness Week'

For the last few years, the theme has been ‘Wear it Bright’, so you might wear a funny-coloured hat or something just to start a conversation and draw attention to allergies. If businesses can do that, it’s an essential step in staff engagement, particularly for some areas of the industry, such as hospitality. With high staff turnover rates, there can be challenges with training (and re-training), so we want them to take it seriously. If they wear bright clothing, they might question their employer about it and start a conversation about allergies. 

Over time, more people will be aware of allergies, and more people, particularly younger people, will have the confidence to tell the staff they have an allergy and not be embarrassed about it.

What can food businesses do to help consumers with dietary restrictions or food hypersensitivity and create that brighter future you're working towards?

Staff can certainly help by making everything normal. The correct way to do things isn’t to have somebody wait at the entrance or have someone go through a massive book of allergen information for the restaurant’s food while the mates you’re with are looking through typical menus. It’s important to make this information easy to understand and accessible. 

Staff should be concerned when dealing with allergies but not frightened because part of the confidence will come from the business in the same way it will come from the consumer, from having a conversation about allergies and taking it seriously. 

Companies can help enormously by making people feel welcome. They can have the training, policies, and procedures in place and welcome them the same way they’d welcome anybody else.

You’ve been in this role for over two years now. What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about anaphylaxis since working at the charity?

Something that’s been quite eye-opening to me is the severity – not in terms of the horrible figures you see regarding fatalities but the impact it has on someone’s quality of life. 

I hadn’t worked in a role focused on allergies before, and I think coming into this relatively fresh gave me a greater understanding of the impact it has on someone’s life and the level of anxiety that some people have. 

I didn’t realise how frightened many people are and how worried parents can be when they leave their child at the school gates, not knowing if they’ll pick their child up at the end of the day. That’s just not right, but we can do something about it, which really motivates me every day.

How does Anaphylaxis UK work with regulatory bodies, such as the FSA, to influence policies or other aspects of allergen management in the food industry?

We have very regular contact through various meetings at their offices in London. These can be with other businesses with a panel; we’re a member of that and have discussions on their policy developments. 

We also have lots of good conversations at events; I was at one the other day with somebody from the Food Standards Agency, for example. What helps is that we have mutual respect as we want the same thing and have much in common. We can bring a different angle to the conversation and hopefully enhance policy development. Clearly, other factors may influence policies, some of which we’re not necessarily all that happy with. 

Still, we can always advise and discuss and connect them to other voices in this industry. We can help enhance their knowledge, which feeds into policy development.

Research is closely linked to policy. Are you conducting extensive research at Anaphylaxis UK, or is that included in your plans?

We don’t get directly involved, but we help facilitate research. We often connect universities and students to people living with allergies to share their experiences on a particular area of interest they’re studying. We don’t do clinical trials but direct people who want to participate. 

One of the things we often get asked and facilitate is how someone who lives with allergies can make things better for someone else. It’s usually the case that sharing their experience is very beneficial in research. At the last Business Forum, a professor, Simon Liversedge from the University of Central Lancashire, talked about technology that I’m particularly excited about and interested in, which concerns eye tracking movement.

And this has to do with how we perceive labels, correct?

That’s right. I talked with the University and Simon, who worked on this program. From my background at other health charities, I knew we often look at the whole packet, not just the allergen labelling. For example, if you’re on a diet or looking at the fat, sodium, or calorie content, you’re bombarded with lots of information. You may have potentially life-threatening allergens in the product you want to avoid, and the packing has all sorts of details like promotions and holiday competition. How do you then interpret all of that information so that you can absorb what you’re looking for, such as potential hazards? 

The University has cleverly devised a way to track consumers’ eye movements when looking at labels to determine what information people are looking at. I’m hoping we can develop an object to track people’s eye movements to support businesses and potentially result in changes to legislation that improve allergen labelling. 

Ideally, we’re not just highlighting it in bold on the back but instead looking at ways it may be enhanced in different ways the brain can easily understand. 

Evidence suggests that too much information overloads the brain, and it’s easy to overlook something important. If you’re in a busy supermarket after work, you’re stressed, tired, don’t want to be here, and just want to go home, it’s very easy to overlook something, but you do need to spend time looking at packaging to make sure it’s safe for you. 

Could you share your insights on the latest allergy awareness and prevention advancements that could impact the food industry?

We’ve been talking about immunotherapy, and that’s an exciting example of the advancements we’re seeing in medicine. There are challenges, though. It can be quite costly to try to afford it through the NHS, and it’s not suitable for everyone as it won’t cover every allergen. Advancements in QR codes have pros and cons, and there are issues around technology, home delivery, and online shopping. 

Another issue when shopping online for food is that you read information differently from how you would when looking at the written text in a store, and every supermarket has that allergen information displayed differently.

How do you think technology and innovation can aid in preventing allergic reactions in food service settings?

Technology that can help improve trust in the supply chain will be beneficial. One of the challenges every restaurant will face is finding a reliable supply of cooking oil and ingredients; knowing what’s in the supplies is essential. I think technology is going to play a part in this. 

I’m nervous about having technology in menus in the way of a QR code. I’m still a bit old-fashioned and prefer to talk to somebody – like the waiting staff, but I’ve been directed to an allergy page on a website through a QR code. 

I certainly think more work needs to be done, and we need to take a greater look into using this kind of technology, as it can feel like it’s being used to fob somebody off. Having someone ask for allergy information, being passed a QR code, and told to make up their own mind doesn’t really work.

There’s also still the same margin of error, similar to how we mentioned handing a customer a big binder full of allergen information from the past two years. A human being still needs to update an allergy page, and you’re putting a lot of trust in the organisation to be vigilant with this.

What is the biggest misconception in the food industry regarding allergen management and consumer safety?

As mentioned, I think it’s the idea of the fussy customer. 

It’s not just in the food industry. Too many people, in general, think those with allergies are just being a bit awkward and will be fine eating just a little bit of food that they’re allergic to.

How does Anaphylaxis UK support those who have experienced a severe reaction such as an anaphylactic shock?

Experiencing a severe reaction can be horrendous. 

It’s frightening for the individual and everyone around them because it can be life-threatening. You have to be quick with the adrenaline auto-injector, quickly call 999, and be sure to mention anaphylaxis. It will be seen as a Category One call, meaning the ambulance will show up very quickly instead of viewing it as a more routine call.

Do you see people who have post-traumatic stress as a result of this?

We absolutely do. What they go through is awful and, like I say, very frightening. 

We try to support them by connecting them with other people and sharing other stories so they don’t feel like they’re the only ones going through something like this. We want them to have the opportunity to speak out and share their experiences. We’re starting a programme to help people overcome those anxieties with a support service, which should arrive over the next few months. 

We’ve received some support, which will help fund this service, but we plan to continuously develop it over the next few years and invite businesses to support us. We aim to provide a network of support groups that people can join to talk to each other and share their knowledge. 

Many people will be locals and have the opportunity to talk with teachers from a local school about restaurants they trust or how to discuss allergies. 

Practical everyday knowledge that can be shared will be very helpful, and it’s so very important to help people support each other. The support we can offer is factually accurate information so that they’re knowledgeable about their allergen, what it means, and what foods are associated with it, for example. We want to get all of that information right to help people make informed choices when shopping or just going out for a cup of tea.

We know that you've got a lot of goals and big ambitions. What ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’ do you have in mind for the charity over the next year or so?

One of our big goals is to offer psychological support, and we’re looking to start that very soon. That will be a life changer that will help people overcome the fears and anxieties they currently live with. It will give me enormous satisfaction to get this off the ground and help people do things like go to a party, have a picnic, go to the beach, all these things they might have been frightened to do before. Hopefully, we’ll have this programme up and running and offering support in the next few months. 

Ultimately, though, the goal is for charities like Anaphylaxis UK to no longer exist. 

It’s a funny thing to say, but we want all of the issues surrounding allergies to go away eventually, for everyone to be educated, and for people to be able to go about their everyday lives with their quality of life not being affected by allergies they have.

What initiative or campaign from Anaphylaxis UK have you felt particularly proud of in the last few years?

This year, the charity turns 30, and when I became the Chief Executive, we were called ‘The Anaphylaxis Campaign’. I’ve led the charity through considerable change over the last few years and wanted it to be portrayed as friendly, accessible, trustworthy, and honest. To this end, I’ve been particularly proud of the organisation’s new look and rebrand. 

I was very insistent on prominently using a sunshine orange colour, and we’ve incorporated sunshine rays into the logo and softened the way anaphylaxis looks. I think it can appear as a pretty scary word, so we found a way to tone it down without distracting from its severity. 

Sunshine is about optimism and the hope we want to give people by helping foster a can-do attitude that encourages them to go out and enjoy what they want to do in life.

And were there personal experiences or motivations that led you to work at Anaphylaxis UK? Do you have allergies yourself, for example?

I don’t have any allergies, and none of my family members are directly affected by allergies, either. I was motivated to see that this charity had lots of potential and that there were opportunities to work with businesses and schools to do much more, such as expanding the education programme. I saw this as a relatively modest charity that was well established and just needed a bit of redirection and a bit of extra focus on its strengths to thrive.

Finally, what is your understanding of what LiberEat does and what impact we are trying to make?

I think the impact LiberEat is trying to make is why we’re working together: to make the food industry safer for those with allergies. 

You’re having behind-the-scenes involvement to ensure that those selling food products know what they’re selling and that it’s adequately communicated to the consumer. You’re an unsung hero in a sense.

We hope you found this discussion interesting. If you want to learn more about Anaphylaxis UK’s AllergyWise programmes or the business forum, check out their business homepage. We’ll be back with more interviews with industry leaders in the future! 

About Anaphylaxis UK

Anaphylaxis UK is the leading charity in the UK that provides support and resources to individuals who are at risk of serious allergic reactions and anaphylaxis. Our mission is to ensure that no one faces anaphylaxis alone, and we are dedicated to helping people live their lives fully, even with their allergies.

 We are proud to say that we are the only UK-wide charity that focuses on anaphylaxis. Our passion for this cause drives us every day. We work tirelessly to provide the latest information and resources to help our community stay informed and protected.

 At Anaphylaxis UK, we understand the challenges of living with allergies. That’s why we offer various resources and support services, including training courses for schools and workplaces and helpline services.

 We are excited to make a difference in the lives of those at risk of anaphylaxis, and we invite you to join us in our mission. Whether you are an individual looking for support, a healthcare professional seeking resources or a business looking to create a safer environment for your customers and employees, we are here to help. 

Together, we can create a place where everyone can live safely and confidently, free from the fear of anaphylaxis.

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Errors in allergen data can cause potentially devastating allergic reactions and expensive product recalls. Give yourself peace of mind, and contact us to learn more about how LiberEat can help protect your business.