Ignorance About Food Allergies Can Poison Restaurants

Studies reveal that many American restaurant workers don’t know enough about food allergies. Restaurants with employees unfamiliar with food allergies risk mistakes that can cause serious injury to customers, liability to the restaurant and a following of people who will at every opportunity try to sink your restaurant (think Yelp). In some cases, a restaurant owner could lose everything if a customer suffers sufficient injury. If your insurance does not cover this and they receive a judgment against your restaurant, it could close your restaurant. That’s without even considering the bad publicity.

Restaurants who don’t prioritize training their staff about food allergies imperil their customers as around 3- 4% of Americans are allergic to food. In 2010, Massachusetts has even passed a law which requires staff to be trained for customers with food allergies and for managers to receive certification. That’s because, since 1985, food intolerance has experienced a 10 fold increase. 30,000 people end up in hospital emergency rooms in America suffering from whole-body allergic reactions caused by food. A few hundred die. Many of these reactions, if not the majority, come from food served at restaurants. Of course, restaurants exercise caution when customers inform the staff about their allergy, and the majority of reactions come from customers forgetting or neglecting to notify workers.

Yet, surveys consistently show ¼ to ⅓ of staff members do not have any food allergy training. If you add to that the number of people with food allergies is actually growing, training is essential to avoid disaster and to provide excellent customer services. Take for example if the customer asks for their options, nothing is more embarrassing when the customer can knows more about the ingredients of specific foods than the server when the customer asks for their options.

A safe way to handle this is for the manager, or some other member of the staff which knows the menu inside and out (like the chef) to handle the situation. Of course, chefs and managers MUST understand food allergies (where the wait staff is suggested rather than required). If they cannot name the big eight major food allergies offhand, I’d be hard pressed to hire them in the first place. Peanuts, milk, eggs, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat make up 90 percent of food allergies and without a strong grasp of this, they can make a dangerous mistake. Also, owners and managers must  that staff follow protocols when someone tells them they have a food allergy. It seems that in the USA food allergies will only grow so restaurant owners have to address the needs of their customers and set up clear plans to handle food allergies that must be followed without exception.

On the bottom of the page, we provide a few food allergy training videos from FAAN. Having your staff watch them is definitely a start, but does not replace food allergy training courses. Of course, there are other steps you need to take to prevent allergic reactions.:

  1. ACCURATE LIST OF INGREDIENTS
    A list of ingredients need to be readily available and stuck to. If you don’t have one on hand (which you should fix as soon as possible), make sure no one who won’t prepare that particular meal should recite ingredients from memory.
  2. CAREFULLY LOOK OVER FOODS PREPARED OFF-SITE
    Anything brought into the kitchen that is prepared somewhere else (such as chocolate) must be treated with special suspicion. A chef and manager should scour the ingredient list, but things like natural and artificial flavors should disqualify the food.
  3. SANITATION AND SEPARATION OF FOOD
    Another major concern is cross-contact. Even in the busiest kitchens, this should be taken seriously. Of course, someone’s food with allergies should be prepared separately. Therefore, to avoid the transfer of allergens, the first order of business is the sanitation of anything that comes in contact with the food. That means hands, surfaces, cookware and appliances. Some allergic reactions only require a very small amount to set off a reaction. Along with that, the food should be brought out alone by someone who has cleaned their hands.
  4. STAFF TRAINING
    Even for staff with a basic knowledge of food allergies, restaurants owners should invest in sending their cooks and managers to a food allergy course (along with themselves if they feel like they don’t know enough). Customers who sense that the staff knows what they are doing are much more likely to eat their meal without worry. And remember, in general, customers with severe food allergies tend to be more restrictive in their restaurant choices as they tire from going through the process every time is as much a hassle for them as it is you. And some with severe allergies find it somewhat nerve-wracking trusting someone else in preparing their meals.
  5. PLAN OF ACTION
    Someone needs to be responsible that staff follow through in making sure that nothing dangerous gets in their customers food. As wait staff and cooks tend to have little time to spare and may accidentally skip steps, whoever is in charge needs to supervise the process and make sure that nothing is missed. If someone forgets a step, they may have to do things over. Also, if someone is having an allergic reaction, one should not hesitate in calling 911 as the sooner adrenaline can be administered the less severe the reaction will become.
  6. REMINDER ON THE MENU
    Sometimes, customers forget. Other times, customers do not say anything because they believe they are familiar with the dish or the menu includes all the ingredients. If the reminder motivates the customer to ask, and they were about to order a dish with something they were allergic to, the customer will feel grateful beyond belief. They have averted disaster as have you.