Food allergies affect over 15 million Americans and cause hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations every year. Currently, only two states mandate allergy training: Rhode Island and Massachusetts. However, it is important that everyone working in the food service industry be familiar with food allergies and the special accommodations that should be made for guests with food allergies.
The “big eight” in food allergies are eight foods that cause 90% of all allergic reactions. They are:
But up to 170 additional foods can elicit an allergic response in people.
Reactions to food allergies range from mild to severe, but all should be taken seriously. Common reactions include:
Itching or tingling
Shortness of breath/wheezing
Hives or rash
Swelling of the hands or face
Abdominal pain or cramps
Vomiting and diarrhea
Loss of consciousness
Reactions typically occur several minutes to several hours after ingesting the offending food.
Communication at every step in the dining process is critical, and every person has a different role to play.
Guests are responsible to clearly communicate which ingredients they are allergic to.
Servers are responsible for knowing (or knowing how to find out) which ingredients are in each dish and accurately communicating guest allergies to the chef.
The ServSafe program recommends following the 4 Rs when a guest has an allergy:
Refer―Let the chef know of the allergy.
Review―Assess the allergy with the guest and check food labels.
Remember―Check for potential cross-contact.
Respond―Acknowledge or reply the guest’s requests and keep them informed.
Chefs―Anyone cooking food for a guest with allergies should be aware of the ingredients in the food and any sources of potential cross-contamination. They should be trained on proper cleaning methods as well as appropriate food substitutions to ensure the guest is served a safe dish.
Cross-contamination occurs when an allergen comes into contact with another type of food. An example would be using a pan to cook shrimp and then using the same oil to cook chicken. There are many ways to prevent cross-contamination from occurring, but here is a short list:
Ensure food is always properly labeled so you know what it is in it.
Always clean cookware, servingware, cutting boards, and utensils after each use.
Wash hands before and after the handling of different types of foods.
Store meats in well-sealed container and on a low-level to prevent the juice from contaminating other types of food underneath.
Certain allergy-producing foods may be referred to by different names depending on their state. For example, whey is the liquid that remains after milk has been curdled or strained and is a common ingredient in many products. Lecithin is a highly processed food related to soy. Being familiar with foods that contain common allergens is also important. For example, chocolate and butter contain milk, so they may pose a problem for those with a milk allergy.
If a guest is displaying symptoms of an allergic reaction, you must take action. A staff member should stay with the guest while another staff member dials 911. As symptoms can progress quickly, it is imperative that medical intervention is sought as early as possible. If the guest is having trouble breathing, you may be asked by the EMT if the guest has an epi pen. If you are a manager, you should follow up with the guest a few days after the incident and also explore with your staff the system failures that allowed the guest to be served contaminated food.