Help your guests with food allergies dine worry-free.

Food allergies are becoming increasingly prevalent in our society. According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), it’s estimated that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies. Eight foods are responsible for 90 percent of all allergic responses: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Manufacturers may soon label for the presence of sesame, another common allergen, as well. Just because an item isn’t listed in the Big 8 doesn’t mean an individual can’t be allergic to it—people can have allergic reactions to a wide variety of foods and even spices. Even a trace amount of a food allergen can trigger a reaction.

Last winter I went to New York City with a few friends, one of whom is allergic to gluten. There is a very popular full-service restaurant that I visit often when I go to NYC, but I didn’t think we would be able to go because they serve mainly pasta dishes. Before I chose the restaurant (knowing that one of my friends has a gluten allergy) I did my research and discovered that this facility had a gluten-free pasta dish. I was elated! Reservations were made! When, my friend, Sam, placed her order she specifically asked the waiter to make certain the pasta was gluten-free; his response was quite rude. As her dish was delivered to the table, she asked, “Was my pasta boiled in separate water from the wheat pasta?” She was curtly assured it was prepared properly. Before we were finished eating, Sam was in the restroom, sick. I felt horrible and I will never eat there again.

As an inspector at Food Safety Training Solutions, I observe cross-contact situations every day. Just recently I watched an individual in a full-service kitchen improperly plate a meal. He took the food off a plate that was to be used for an allergic individual and placed the plate back on the stack without properly washing, rinsing, and sanitizing it. He had placed a dish that contained eggs on the plate. If the next person who ordered was allergic to eggs and received that plate…well, if I had not been there to catch the error, someone could have become sick—or even died. It was purely accidental; he had not been properly trained.

Thermometers are a common source of cross-contact. Frequently they are taken from one item only to be placed into another without being properly cleaned and sanitized. I would strongly recommend color-coded thermometers (and other equipment, as well) in kitchens. It’s easy to understand how a mistake could happen when you’re serving hundreds of guests on any given evening. It would be smart to eliminate the risk factor by simply color-coding your thermometers. When sanitizing your thermometers, you should wash, rinse, and sanitize. Alcohol pads may not remove all of the food proteins that could harm the food allergic diner. In addition, alcohol pads also pose a physical hazard, if not used properly.

Many people think that using hand sanitizers is an effective way to manage food allergens, this is not accurate. “Antibacterial gels are not effective in removing food proteins,” according to leading pediatric allergist Dr. Robert Wood. Changing gloves and washing hands with soap and water are two effective methods to eliminate allergen exposure.

Educating foodservice teams on the importance of safe food handling has progressed significantly in recent years, but more needs to be done. Chefs must have procedures in place to minimize the risk of cross-contact. Here are a few tips to make your kitchen friendly to food-allergic guests:

  • Create a separate workspace in your kitchen to prepare allergen-free/gluten-free meals. Make certain you clean and sanitize all work surfaces and equipment.

  • Store common food allergens in a separate area of the kitchen.

  • Utilize color-coded allergy tools in your kitchens to reduce the risk of cross-contact. Purple is the universal color for allergen-free kitchen utensils. Keep these tools clean, covered, and stored away from flours.

  • Don’t use the same fryer or oil for French fries that you use for breaded products, fish, or foods containing nuts.

  • NEVER guess or try to be nice by offering assurance when you are not certain if an item contains an allergen. Better to say “I don’t know,” and then double-check when you are unsure. Offer to look at labels for the diner. If needed, bring the package to the diner to read.

  • Recognize that many hand lotions contain common allergens such as tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy; therefore, they should not be kept in the kitchen.

  • Serve allergen-free/gluten-free meals on different-shaped or different-colored plates so they can be easily identified by servers.

  • Make certain all dishware is properly washed, rinsed, and sanitized prior to reuse.

  • Educate your entire staff about allergen “aliases”—for instance, whey and casein are dairy products, and semolina contains gluten.

  • Be willing to modify dishes for food-allergic guests, using different sauces, sides, or other components to accommodate their special dietary restrictions.

  • Communicate with your team, and train them on food allergy protocols. There are numerous online classes, webinars, videos, and live classes that can assist you with this endeavor.

It’s critical that everyone on your staff understands the difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination:

  • Cross-contact occurs when an allergen is inadvertently transferred from a food containing an allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen—such as chopping peanuts on a board and then chopping vegetables on that same board. The vegetables have come into contact with the peanuts, which could trigger an allergic reaction in a guest with peanut allergies. Cooking does not reduce or eliminate the risk of cross-contact.

  • Cross-contamination is a common factor in the cause of food-borne illness. If you place raw chicken on a board, and then chop vegetables on that same board, you risk cross-contamination, spreading bacteria from the raw poultry onto the vegetables. Proper cooking of the contaminated food in most cases will reduce or eliminate the chances of a food-borne illness.

The main difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination is that anyone can become ill from cross-contamination if they eat foods that have touched raw meats or poultry. Cross-contact is dangerous only for food-allergic guests, who may inadvertently ingest their allergens if proper care wasn’t taken during food prep.

It’s vital that everyone on your team knows how to handle an order for someone with food allergies. Consumers are seeking out establishments where they can dine worry-free. These establishments will earn brand loyalty, and therefore, increase profitability.  

The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.


Expert Takes, Feature