Navigating Food Allergies
By: Ruth L. Petran PhD, Vice President, Food Safety & Public Health
In recent years, we’ve been hearing more about food allergies, in part because they’re on the rise. In the U.S., more than 90 percent of allergic reactions to food are caused by eight items: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish (crab, lobster, or shrimp), tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans1. Even trace amounts can cause a reaction from mild (hives, swelling or shortness of breath) to extremely serious (loss of consciousness, anaphylactic shock and death).
While the Food Code states that restaurant managers should demonstrate knowledge of food allergens and provide employees with proper training in food safety, including food allergy awareness, no standardized approach exists for serving allergic customers2. This gives restaurant managers the leeway and the responsibility to decide how their operations will accommodate customers with food allergies. Although restaurants may not be able to address each specific need of customers who have food allergies, finding ways to help them avoid food allergens can help improve their safety and satisfaction – and enhance your restaurant’s success.
To reduce the risk of allergic reactions from food, we’ve recommended restaurants adopt the following practices:
- Monitor ingredients, suppliers and deliveries: Ensure your suppliers follow rigorous separation and labeling practices, and adopt a strict “no substitution” policy. Read labels and package slips carefully to understand what ingredients are in each product. Also, pay attention to how ingredients are delivered to your restaurant to be sure there is no risk of cross contact with other foods.
- Implement strict cleaning and preparation practices: Clean equipment well (such as cutting boards, knives and food contact surfaces) to avoid cross contact with foods known to cause allergies. Even better, keep a separate “allergy kit” of color-coded equipment, including utensils and cutting board, for use in preparing allergen-free orders. Always remember to clean, rinse and sanitize the kit’s contents after each use.
- Communicate with your customers: If a customer requests a menu substitution that cannot be safely provided, it’s best to tell them that no substitutions can be made. In addition, a note on the menu explaining that some foods may be prepared with ingredients associated with food allergies will show sensitivity to customer concerns.
- Train your staff: Train staff on the risks of food allergies and how to prevent them. Continuously stress the importance of staff – from the front of the house to the back – communication with each other when preparing and serving food to customers’ with food allergies. Failing to communicate can lead to oversights or mistakes.
- If an allergic reaction does occur: Call 911 immediately and follow advice from medical professionals. If possible, find out if the customer requires epinephrine, and if yes, inform the 911 dispatcher. Not all ambulances carry it, and not every emergency medical technician is trained to administer it. Stay with your customer until help arrives.
- Follow Up: If an allergic reaction occurs at your restaurant, review the situation with staff to determine what role they may have played in the cause and what protocols could be implemented to prevent a repeat incident. A day or two later, follow up with the customer to ensure he or she has recovered and let them know that steps are being taken to prevent a repeat incident.
Accommodating the special needs of all customers with food allergies is not easy – and it may be out of reach for some restaurants. But by putting these best practices in place, you’ll help to ensure the safety of your customers and your business.
1 As listed by the FALCPA (Food Allergy Labeling Consumer Protection Act 2006).
2 FDA Food Code, 2-102.11(c)(9) – added in 2005; 2-103.11(L) – added in 2009.