Restaurants’ Newest Frontier: Confronting Food Allergens

Restaurants are beginning to take food allergens more seriously to please diners. Millennials are leading the trend of demanding better options for people with food allergens and special dietary needs and restrictions. Younger generations are having more food allergens but still want to dine out.

Restaurants face a learning curve because it’s not just a matter of removing allergens from diners’ meals. Kitchen staffs must also prevent cross-contamination of foods when severe allergies could cause violent reactions from even small traces of offending ingredients.

The National Restaurant Association now offers a dedicated online course on dealing with allergens in its highly regarded ServSafe program. More than 15 million people in the United States have food allergens, so restaurants need to offer safe food options for customers or risk losing people with allergies and their dining companions.

Allergen Training Programs for Restaurants

Restaurants throughout the country are attracting diners with allergies by getting proactive about allergies, special dietary needs and food intolerances. Allergies cause more the 200,000 visits to emergency rooms each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that food allergies in children increased by 50 percent between the years 1997 and 2011.

Common foods that cause allergies include shellfish, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, soy and wheat, Even trace amounts of allergens can cause risks to life in some people, so cross-contamination in restaurants could cause a reaction, even when an offending ingredient isn’t used.

Restaurants have many choices of educational courses about food allergens for management and staff. These interactive courses and resources include:

  • ServSafe Allergens Course
    This online course helps restaurant employees understand allergies, food intolerances and safety precautions for serving guests with allergies.
  • AllerTrain
    This program concentrates on handling foods safely throughout the delivery, storage, preparation and serving processes.
  • SafeFARE
    This program for consumers helps allergy victims find restaurants where employees have passed the above courses.
  • FARE Resources
    FARE, the Food Allergy Research and Education organization, offers many educational resources, posters and tools for dealing with food allergies.
  • Anaphylaxis-treatment Courses
    Restaurants can choose from various first aid and anaphylaxis-treatment courses that provide staff with training to deal with anaphylactic shock.

Restaurants can ensure safety among diners and attract more business from people who have food allergies and intolerances. Instead of regarding allergy awareness as a burden, restaurants can focus on providing special menus for all customers that need them to attract new diners.

Legislative Pressure for Restaurants

Massachusetts and Rhode island passed laws that provide safeguards for people with allergies who want to dine at restaurants. Restaurants are required to display food-allergy awareness posters and menu verbiage that reminds customers to inform their servers of any food allergies. Other initiatives for dealing with allergies include:

  • Training staff in allergy awareness and how to avoid cross-contamination
  • Requiring that each restaurant has a certified food protection manager
  • Understanding which ingredients are most likely to trigger reactions
  • Supporting the Food Allergy Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides education, encourages legislative action and funds allergy research
  • Working with kitchen staffs to develop alternative ways of preparing foods for people with allergies
  • Keeping emergency supplies of epinephrine to treat anaphylactic reactions

New York has passed a bill that requires restaurants to display an allergy-awareness poster. Similar movements are gaining ground across the nation.

Allergies Vs. Food Intolerances

One of the most critical benefits of allergy awareness is understanding the difference between allergies and food intolerances. Allergies are life-threatening while intolerances cause discomfort but don’t typically cause threats to life.

  • Food allergies affect digestive systems, breathing, blood circulation and the immune system.
  • Intolerance generally affects only digestion.
  • Celiac disease, a form of food intolerance, does affect the immune system by causing the body to attack the small intestine when people with the disease eat gluten.
  • People who have food intolerances can often ingest small amounts of the foods without getting sick, but even a microbe of a food can trigger a severe reaction in people with allergies.

Restaurant kitchens encounter mixed reasons for people placing special orders. These grounds include allergies, intolerances, health disorders, diets and personal preferences. Kitchen staff can become jaded when a customer requests a gluten-free entrée but orders a pasta salad as a starter and a piece of cake for dessert. Kitchen workers need to be aware that their customers place special orders for various reasons and that allergies are critical issues.

Restaurants can designate an expert during each shift to deal with allergy issues. Staff members can take online courses to learn how to identify allergens, prevent cross-contamination and accommodate guests with special dietary needs. Eventually, it is likely that federal, state or local governments will pass mandatory allergy laws. Being proactive about special dietary needs offers restaurants the benefit of increased sales and safer dining environments for all types of people.