An emerging threat to consumer and restaurant health is food allergies. Some individuals can have sudden, severe allergic reactions to certain foods or ingredients. A food allergy is an immune system response to a certain food. The body believes a particular protein in the food is harmful and reacts to try and destroy the threat. Estimates show that nearly 12 million people in the United States currently suffer from food allergies.1 With this high number, chances are a restaurant will serve at least one customer with a food allergy. For example, eating fried chicken that is prepared in the same oil as breaded shrimp can cause a reaction in someone allergic to shellfish.
In response to these growing safety concerns, many restaurants are voluntarily putting ingredient labels on menus and developing customer service plans. Other restaurants simply have to refuse service because they do not know which, if any, allergens are present in their foods.
Common Food Allergies
It is estimated that food-related allergies account for 30,000 U.S. hospital visits and between 150 to 200 deaths each year.2
In the United States, the following list of foods account for 90% of the food-related allergic reactions:3
Since levels of sensitivity vary, it is absolutely important to prevent contact between the known allergen and that guest’s meal. If a single protein from the food allergen comes into contact with the guest’s meal, an allergic reaction could be triggered.
- Communication is key. If a guest mentions that they have a food allergy, take them seriously. Either have the server inform the manager or the person on staff with food allergy knowledge.
- Have someone on staff that knows about food allergies. Though it is important that staff know the basics of food allergies, make sure each shift has someone on staff that has extensive knowledge of both the menu and different allergens so he or she can help guests select menu items that will not cause an allergic reaction.
A Liability Issue
If a customer indicates that they have a food allergy, restaurants can be held liable if that individual has a reaction. Restaurants can be sued for providing incomplete information. So it is important to provide full ingredient information and prepare and serve the foods separately from other dishes. In cases where full ingredient information is not available, the restaurant will have to politely inform the customer that their needs cannot be accommodated.
- Avoid cross-contact. Cross-contact occurs when food proteins mix through either direct or indirect contact. Food allergens can be transferred via unclean hands or utensils, preparation surfaces, fryer vats and even garnishes. Remember, it only takes a single protein to cause an allergic reaction.
- Prepare food separately. To prevent cross-contact, use separate utensils, different preparation areas and maybe even separate equipment if necessary to keep allergens from contacting specially prepared foods.
- Serve the dish separately. Cross-contact can occur when prepared meals are being carried out to the table, so be sure to carry the prepared meal separately from other dishes.
- Check with guest immediately to assure everything is satisfactory. With food allergic customers, it is important to assure no allergic reaction is occurring once they begin eating. So swing by their table a few minutes after eating and ask if everything is alright. This will further show that the restaurant cares about the customer’s health and could help spot a reaction early on, rather than the customer having to flag down a server.
- Do not have hidden ingredients. Though you do not have to give out your entire preparation process, mentioning possible allergen ingredients on the menu will be helpful to guests with allergies.
- Mention any menu changes. When changing ingredients in a dish, be sure to let guests know that their favorite dish contains different ingredients to which they may be allergic.
- Have alternate dishes and ingredients on hand. There are several substitutions that can be used to replace common food allergens without changing the flavor of the meal.
- If you do not know, say so. If a guest with food allergies is considering a certain dish, and you are not certain if the ingredients contain an allergen, say so. In all instances regarding customer health, it is better to be safe than sorry.
If a customer says they are having an allergic reaction, do not wait and see if the symptoms pass. Allergic reactions can be life threatening, so call 911 immediately. Have servers notify management, too.
Incorrect comparisons are often drawn between cross-contamination and cross-contact. Cross-contamination refers to bacteria that is transferred from one food or surface to another and can cause food poisoning. Cross-contact refers to a single protein that is transferred between surfaces and can cause an allergic reaction.
The distinction is important to make because bacteria can be killed by high temperatures. Food allergens are not killed through cooking. So griddle tops, fryer vats and even microwave ovens are all possible carriers of food allergens. It is important to either clean and sanitize or use separate pieces of equipment when preparing meals for customers with food allergies.
A comparison is often wrongfully made between food intolerances and food allergies. If a person is lactose intolerant (a common intolerance involving dairy products) that simply means that person’s body cannot digest dairy foods. A person with a food intolerance will often experience stomach aches, nausea, headaches and other general unpleasant symptoms as the body fails to break down the particular food.
Food allergies are an immune system response, not a digestive system response. Allergic reactions can occur within a few minutes to two hours after exposure to an allergen happens. Common reactions to food allergies are:
- Rash or hives
- Stomach pain
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling of the lungs and airways
The most dangerous form of food allergy reaction is called anaphylaxis. This is a severe allergic reaction in which a number of the aforementioned symptoms occur all at once and very quickly. Anaphylaxis can also result in a sudden drop in blood pressure; this symptom coupled with several others can lead to death if the person is not treated immediately.