ServSafe Allergens Study Guide for the ServSafe

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General Information

This test assesses your knowledge of common and not-so-common allergens as well as ways to prevent allergic reactions during food service. You will take the test upon completion of the ServSafe Allergens coursework.

We do not have any information about the number of questions on this test or the percentage of correct answers that are required to pass it. There are no prerequisites for the course, however, so anyone may take it and take the test that follows.

What Are Food Allergies?

There are over 160 foods that are linked to allergic reactions in the United States. Allergic reactions result from the presence of an allergen. Allergens are naturally occurring proteins found in food that cause some people to experience sensitivities. When someone with a sensitivity to a certain allergen eats enough of it, they can experience an allergic reaction. Sometimes even a minute amount can cause a reaction or even death.

Symptoms of Food Allergies

Allergic reactions might happen immediately after eating a food, or you may not have a reaction for several hours. Symptoms range from mild to serious and in the most severe cases, anaphylaxis may occur and lead to death. If you recognize the symptoms in a customer, call the emergency number in your area and notify them of an allergic reaction. Symptoms to watch out for can include:

  • Itchy throat
  • Swelling of the face, eyes, hands, feet
  • Hives or itchy rash
  • Shortness of breath/wheezing
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

Handling Food Allergy Emergencies

Your establishment should have procedures in place for food handlers in the back of the house as well as food servers in the front of the house when it comes to allergy emergencies. When a customer informs you of a food allergy, great care should be taken to avoid transferring the allergen to the customer’s order in the kitchen and in the dining room. Keeping your customers safe is your job. However, if food or items do come in contact with a food allergen and an allergic reaction does occur, there are procedures to follow.

  • Do not serve your customer anything you believe has come in contact with the allergen.
  • Set the food aside and label it “Caution: Do Not Use” with the name of the allergen it came in contact with, like “contains nuts” and inform your manager.
  • If you do see a customer exhibiting signs of an allergic reaction, like one of the symptoms above, call the emergency number in your area as soon as possible, then inform your manager.

Common Food Allergens

Your kitchen and dining room staff should know the foods that are most commonly associated with allergies, and know your menu well enough to be able to identify the dishes that contain them. There are 160 known foods that may cause allergic reactions, but nine of them make up 90 percent of all food allergies in the United States. These nine foods are known as the “Big Nine”.

The Big Nine

The Big Nine are:

  • Milk and milk products
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Wheat
  • Fish (like bass, flounder, and cod)
  • Crustacean shellfish (like crab, lobster, and shrimp)
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (like walnuts and pecans)
  • Sesame



Some people are so sensitive to certain allergens that even a tiny amount can cause a reaction. This is why it’s so important to avoid mixing allergens from foods, tools, or food-contact surfaces with foods or items served to the allergic customer. This mixing of allergen proteins is known as cross-contact. Much of what food handlers and servers already do to practice good personal hygiene will also help avoid cross-contact.

Implications for Kitchen Staff

Foods must be stored and handled in a way that avoids cross-contact. Cross-contact happens when an allergen comes in contact with the food, dish, utensil, etc. that will be served to an allergic guest. Food handlers must be familiar with the ways in which cooking, handling, and their work space can lead to harming allergic customers via cross-contact.

Cooking Food

Cross-contact can occur during cooking when you fry different food items in the same oil. If you fry crab and then French fries in the same oil, and serve the French fries to a customer with a severe shellfish allergy, the allergen can be present on the fries, putting your allergic customer in danger. Food handlers should thoroughly check recipes and ingredients lists before cooking to ensure the allergy isn’t present.

Handling Food

Cross-contact can occur during handling when you’re preparing a customer’s dish. If you allow an allergic customer’s food to touch surfaces, tools, equipment, utensils, etc. that have touched the allergen, you risk cross-contact. Laying chocolate fudge squares to cool on the same piece of parchment paper that was used to cool peanut fudge squares could lead to danger if a customer with a severe peanut allergy eats one of the chocolate squares.


Cross-contact can occur at your workstation if the cutting board, knife, utensils, etc. comes in contact with an allergen and you use it to prepare foods for an allergic guest. Food handlers should wash, rinse, and sanitize cookware, utensils, equipment, food prep surfaces, etc. before preparing the dish and make sure the allergen doesn’t touch anything during preparation.

Importance of Proper Cleaning Methods

Proper cleaning is important to prevent cross-contact. Much of what you already do to prevent cross-contamination will also help avoid cross-contact. This means every item used in preparation, cooking, and serving should be washed, rinsed, and sanitized. This includes items like tools and equipment, and includes work surfaces.

Utensils and Dishes

Cookware, tools, knives, utensils, cutting boards, equipment, etc. must be washed, rinsed, and sanitized before preparing an allergen special order. Some establishments take it a step further and use separate items and tools for allergen special orders so there’s no chance of cross-contact.

Once the dish is prepared using safe utensils and items, make sure the finished dish doesn’t come into contact with the allergen. Also make sure the allergic guests beverage, utensils, etc. are safe.

Personal Hygiene

Hands can also transmit allergens, so food handlers should always wash their hands and change gloves before preparing food. Proper hand washing includes:

  • Wetting hands under warm water
  • Applying enough soap to create a lather
  • Scrubbing hands and arms well for 15 seconds, including fingertips, under nails, and between fingers
  • Rinsing thoroughly under warm water
  • Drying with a single-use paper towel or hand dryer

Consider using a paper towel to turn the faucet off and to open the bathroom door. Single-use gloves, in the correct size, should be used after washing hands. Avoid touching the food contact areas of the glove, and never blow into it or roll it to put it on. Never reuse gloves.

Preventing Allergic Reactions

There are around 15 million Americans with food allergies, and around 200,000 emergency room visits each year due to allergic reactions. Food handlers and servers must do all they can to prevent allergic customers from experiencing sensitivities, intolerances, and reactions in their establishments. Servers and front of the house staff are the first line of defense, and must clearly indicate an allergy special order to the kitchen.

Service Staff Roles

Servers and dining room staff must be knowledgeable about dishes on the menu, the Big Nine, and what dishes use the Big Nine as ingredients. If at any time you are not sure whether or not a dish contains an allergen, ask your manager. At least one front of the house employee per shift must be available to answer customer questions and concerns about the intricacies of the menu. If a customer tells you they have a food allergy, you must take it seriously and work with the customer to place what is known as an allergen special order.

Special Dietary Requests

Customers may have food sensitivities, food intolerances (such as dairy or gluten), or a food allergy. If a customer discloses this information to you, you must take it seriously, help them choose a safe dish, and communicate the allergen special order clearly to the kitchen. Allergen special order procedures should be used for guests with allergies as well as other sensitivities, like dairy or gluten intolerance.

Describing Dishes

Servers should understand, and be able to explain to a customer, how a dish is prepared. Marinades, sauces, and garnishes can also have allergens and often do, like peanut butter used to thicken a sauce. That information would be critical to a guest who has a peanut allergy. Servers (or the employee with the most knowledge of the menu) should know all menu item ingredients, preparations, and finishings, like sauces and garnishes.

Naming Ingredients

Servers should be knowledgeable enough about dishes on the menu to be able to inform a customer if the food they’re allergic to is on the menu or not. Secret ingredients, house specialities, and special sauces must also be identified and disclosed. Menu items should be honestly presented. Servers can also use their knowledge of the menu to suggest dishes that don’t contain the allergen to help the allergic customer make a safe choice.

Identifying the Allergen Order

Servers should mark an allergen special order clearly, like writing it on the ticket in all caps or underlining to alert the kitchen staff of the allergen special order. The kitchen and back of the house must be made aware of an allergen special order and any pertinent information.

Food Delivery

Servers should confirm the allergen special order with the kitchen when picking it up for service. Make sure there is no sign of the allergen. Check for garnishes or other things that might contain the allergen. Hand deliver the dish directly to the allergic guest, and deliver it on its own to help avoid contact with allergens.

Self-Serve Areas

Self-service areas can become easily contaminated due to cross-contamination as well as cross-contact. Foods should be clearly displayed and in separate containers. Each food should also be clearly labeled and have its own serving utensil. Self-service areas should have clear signs stating your policies as well as the need to use a clean plate for each visit, and these areas should be monitored for cleanliness and tidiness.

Using Food Labels

Food labels are a very important tool for identifying allergens in the foods you purchase. Federal law requires manufactured products containing one or more of the Big Nine as ingredients be clearly identified on the ingredients label. It may be a common name, like “buttermilk”, or it may be shown in parentheses after the ingredient.

Allergens are usually shown in a “contains” statement like a regular ingredients list that says “CONTAINS: PEANUTS.” in bold at the end.

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