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Food Allergies: A Responsible Approach

None of these are a good way to end a meal.

I have one hard and fast rule when it comes to waiting tables.  No one dies on my watch.  I have had several guests leave the restaurant in an ambulance, but none of them have died.  It is a simple thing, but it helps me sleep better at night.  I may not be changing the world with this rule, but I cannot imagine the guilt of breaking it.

This is why I am particularly careful about food allergies.  Knowledge of food allergies is the most basic tool  a server has to prevent guests from facing life-threatening reactions in their restaurants.  This is too often treated lightly.  I once heard a surgeon say that the only minor surgery is the one someone else is having.  The same can be said of food allergies.  While it may not seem important to every guest, the difference between a peanut and a tree nut can be the difference between an enjoyable meal and a trip to the emergency room for some of your guests.

To refresh a little on the topic, I visited the website of FAAN, The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.  Some of the statistics I found were shocking in spite of the knowledge I thought I had on the topic.  Twelve million Americans suffer from food allergies.  This is four percent of the overall population or one out of every twenty-five guests you serve.  This is not including people who are simply intolerant of certain food items.  These people face severe health consequences if they consume an item they are allergic to.

According to FAAN, eight items account for ninety percent of all allergic reactions.  These eight items are: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.  This list does not include other common allergens like sesame or bleu cheese.  It also does not include intolerances such as sensitivity to lactose or gluten.  The numbers above seem high, but actually do not include many other legitimate health concerns that your guests may have.

In order to reduce the risks to those suffering from allergies, in 2006 congress passed the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).  This requires labeling on food items that contain on of the eight most severe allergies listed about to clearly state so on the package.  This has greatly eased the burden of consumers who are concerned about the items in the grocery store.  It did not place the same requirement on restaurant menus.  This is why the restaurant industry must be proactive in addressing this issue.

The first step that all restaurants should be taking is to clearly identify any potential allergens on their menu.  I am not suggesting that every menu that contains juevos rancheros needs a notation stating that the item contains eggs.  I do think responsible restaurants should note that a salad has bleu cheese or walnuts.  Beyond the simple ethical responsibility, this can also significantly reduce a restaurants liability.  It is not a requirement at this point, but I can’t imagine too many owners who want to sit across from a weeping mother when facing a jury on this issue.

The second step that restaurants should take is educating their staff regarding food interactions.  One of the best ways to do so is to make it part of the initial menu training.  The best education I received on this topic was from Buca Di Beppo.  Years ago as a server in training with their company, I was forced to learn the allergens in every item on their menu.  Additionally, they had cheat sheets posted throughout the restaurant.  Not only did I learn a great deal about the topic, I also gained a healthy respect for the consequences of not knowing this information.

The third step restaurants should take is safeguarding against cross contamination.  A fryer that is used to cook shrimp can easily transfer allergens to the next batch of fries put in it.  This results in a guest who did all of their due diligence still facing a risk of an allergic reaction.  Restaurants must be aware of cross contamination from not only a sanitation standpoint, but also to prevent allergic reactions.  This creates extra work, but avoids the scene of a guest suffering from a severe reaction being wheeled out of the dining room on a stretcher.

The experts at FAAN have worked with some of the top minds in the restaurant industry to develop training materials to help educate your staff.  They have a very effective poster to post as a reminder to your staff.  They also have developed an excellent training program for restaurant employees and managers.  The handbook is available for download and would be a valuable use of training hours or as continuing education at your next staff meeting.  It is vital for management to take the lead by placing value on this information and fostering a climate of concern.

Unfortunately, not all of these protocols are not universally in place throughout the industry.  For these reasons, the guests must be their own first line of defense.  Guests should inquire about any ingredients not listed.  Making a server aware of any potential interactions is always a good idea.  Servers need to convey this information to the kitchen.  This provides the greatest protection to the guest by giving the staff cause for added vigilance.

All too often guests who have faced these issues in the past will simply stop eating out.  To them the risk of an interaction is not worth the experience.  The burden falls on the restaurant industry to make all of our diners feel safe eating at our restaurants.  We as an industry cannot afford to lose four percent of our potential guests due to a disregard of these guidelines.  The risk of not educating ourselves is severe to the industry, but it can be deadly to our guests.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is the creator of The Hospitality Formula Network, a series of websites dedicated to all aspects of the restaurant industry. He is also the author of the book Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips and Building Your Brand With Facebook.

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7 comments on “Food Allergies: A Responsible Approach

  1. Great post, I find it interesting that I have to tell a restaurant I have an allergy rather than an intolerance to shellfish and farm raised fish in order to get them to take me seriously. I might not die if you mess up and touch the shellfish or farm raised fish while preparing my meal, but 2 to 3 days of not being able to keep food down is pretty horrible to me. Thanks for bringing a little awareness.

  2. Thank you for your post and for being someone who doesn’t minimize the seriousness of food allergies. I’m allergic to wheat, and I do my best to pick things on menus that look likely to be safe. I always let the wait staff know about the allergy when I order and tell them that I’m flexible about having something else if there’s a problem with my first choice. Part of why I don’t eat out more often is because I worry about accidents, indifference, or misunderstandings. I do think that most people who work in restaurants are careful and aware, but there’s always the handful that are problematic. Thanks you for being one of the good ones.

  3. yellowcat on said:

    I have an intolerance for beef, therefore I am very sympathetic to people with allergies and I will go into the freezer and read every ingredient to make sure the customer isn’t going to have a reaction. People with allergies tend to know exactly what they can and cannot have and are very specific.

    However, people with gluten intolerances are a pain in the butt. If they see that your restaurant has items which are gluten free (meat), they suddenly become brain dead and think they can eat everything (pasta & bread).

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  5. So great and wise that you were able to appreciate all of this when you were training at that restaurant! There have been some wait staff who are familiar with food allergies when we go there (and our son has several) but then most are not. I wish it was mandatory to have “cheat sheets” on them at all times as well as proper training. Our son was so bad with even sensitivities to foods that it caused awful eczema everywhere for him. Thankfully he is much better now though that he takes his Belly Boost probiotic for kids and we are so thankful! Now I just can’t wait to see regulations at food service places as more and more common this is for so many.

    • tipsfortips on said:

      Thank you for the kind words. The feedback I have received in the comment sections and through other channels has really had me thinking about this issue. I have decided this deserves more than a single post. I am still tinkering with the best approach, but should have some interesting posts on this topic by the end of the month. I think this is a problem restaurants have been too slow to address and would benefit greatly from being part of the solution. I hope you check back in and can provide feedback on future posts on this topic.

  6. michelle on said:

    great info, thanks for sharing!

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