Lack of Allergen Isolation
By Cindy Rice, RS, CP-FS, MSPH Eastern Food Safety
May is Allergy Awareness month. Approximately 12.5 million Americans report having a food allergy, including 3 to 4% of adults, and 6 to 8% infants/young children, with 50,000 anaphylactic reactions and 150-200 deaths each year, and no known cure in sight. In spite of these statistics, the importance of allergen control is often an overlooked food safety issue in the food industry.
The implications to the restaurant industry are enormous: improper handling of allergenic foods can lead to health issues and even death in a matter of minutes, for severely allergic individuals. One study reported that 80% of persons with a food allergy have had an allergic reaction while eating outside the home, but only one-third of these individuals carry an Epipen with them at all times. A scary thought from the perspective of a restaurant owner... consequently, it is up to food establishments to be vigilant to prevent cross contact and adverse reactions in their customers. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to prevent cross contact of that allergen protein with a customer’s dish, whether in preparation, storage or serving, and the bottom line is that this not only protects the customer but your business too.
REASONS WHY THIS CAN HAPPEN:
The challenge to restaurants is that allergens are everywhere. There are about 170 foods that have caused allergic reactions in the U.S., plus gluten and lactose-containing foods that can lead to harmful health effects in many individuals. The eight major allergens in the U.S. are eggs, milk, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood and crustacean shellfish, but the FDA is considering adding sesame to this list, as sesame allergies are increasing. Also, in spite of FDA food code requirements around allergen safety and many states adopting their own allergen regulations, general lack of knowledge is problematic - about cooking, separation and effective cleaning methods to prevent cross contact. Also, undeclared allergens on ingredient labels account for more than half of food recalls, making it more difficult for food workers to identify harmful ingredients for their customers.
- Communicate clearly between kitchen and customers about their dietary concerns, so meals can be prepared safely
- Prevent cross contact with allergens, gluten or other harmful ingredients - using clean or dedicated equipment, utensils, cutting boards when preparing meals for sensitive individuals
- Use safe substitutions for harmful ingredients, and read ingredient labels carefully to avoid inclusion of allergens
- Use separate cooking oils, fryolators, clean cookware/ grill surfaces, to prevent cross contact. Remember that allergens and gluten proteins are not destroyed through cooking
- Place allergy label on finished plates & food containers, alerting customer that their meal has been prepared without presence of specific ingredients
- Wash and rinse food contact items thoroughly to physically remove allergen proteins, then sanitize as usual
- Train staff and supplement with visual aids (Kitchen posters, booklets, videos) to reinforce behaviors of allergen safety
- Have written protocols for allergen safety practices
Make allergen awareness and safe behaviors a priority today. Your customers will thank you for it, and your operation will be rewarded for your good efforts.
Restaurants & Food Allergen Awareness
So much in the restaurant industry is different right now. But the need to safely serve a customer with a food allergy is still critically important.