With a reported 50% of fatal food allergen episodes occurring outside the home, it's no wonder that customers with severe food allergies are cautious of dining out. Currently, there is no legislation stating that your restaurant has to accommodate customers with food allergies. However, some states (Rhode Island and Massachusetts) have passed legislation requiring food allergy training for staff and menus containing allergy disclaimers.
Accommodating patrons with food allergies is a matter of both safety and increased revenue opportunity. By implementing food allergy-friendly solutions at your restaurant (such as ingredient substitutions, cross-contact management, and accurate menu disclaimers), you can earn the trust of a dining demographic that has increased notably in the last decade.
Accidental cross-contact is a main culprit of food allergy episodes. Cross-contact is defined as the transfer of an allergen from a food containing the allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen. Keep in mind that this differs from cross-contamination, which is attributed to foodborne illness. Sometimes, even a trace amount of food is enough to trigger an allergic reaction. Check out these methods to avoid common cross-contact incidents:
When Prepping, Cooking, Plating and Serving
Practice proper sanitization! Wash, rinse, and sanitize cookware, utensils and equipment after handling a food allergen.
Sometimes, it's just not possible to fully sanitize every piece of cookline equipment. Use a separate fryer and cooking oils when frying food for customers with food allergies. The same applies to items like flattop grills, blenders, and other machines.
Wash hands and change gloves before prepping food.
Use color coded knives, pans, cutting boards, and other commercial kitchen utensils for food allergy orders.
Beware of garnishes! Many times, a final garnish can create the allergy. Examples: Sprinkling cheese on dairy-free chili, topping a nut-free cheesecake with walnuts, or adding croutons to a gluten-free salad.
Create a specific serving plan for food allergy orders. Delivery options include bringing a meal separately to the table, using a different colored bowl or plate, or using a colored ticket to indicate special handling.
Don't forget to properly sanitize tabletops, countertops, and other dining surfaces. Use hot water, commercial cleaning solution, and a fresh cleaning cloth to ensure that food allergens don't linger on surfaces or transfer through the cloth you use.
Implement a no-substitution policy from your food supplier. If you must allow substitutions, they should receive manager approval. Introducing a replacement product to your ingredients list could potentially add a new allergen to your menu (for example, a soup broth with soy). If customers have previously ordered a dish, they may be under the assumption that it is safe to eat.
At Your Serving Line and Cafeteria
Place nutrition and allergen cards on food shields and sneeze guards.
Don't use the same ladle, pair of tongs, scoop, and other utensils to serve more than one specific dish. Consider using color coded serving utensils to designate dishes free of - or containing - the “Big Eight”
Avoid Emergencies with Your Menu
A concise menu is your first line of defense in protecting diners from known food allergens. Decide how you will denote potential allergens on your menu. It's important to evaluate what you can actually accommodate. For example, if you have just one fryer for multiple dishes like fish, shellfish, and breaded meat, you cannot provide fried foods that are free of the “Big Eight” without changing out your fry oil and cleaning the equipment. However, some food allergy issues are much more easily solved. If you're looking to become more food-allergy friendly, consider supplying alternative food items (for example, gluten-free rolls) for a simple solution.
- Identify known “Big Eight” allergens for each dish. These can be depicted using text, icons, or other abbreviations on your menu.
- Provide a general statement for food items that cannot be altered to accommodate food allergies. For example, “All fried items are prepared in oil that is also used to cook shellfish, fish, and breaded items” or “All soup broth may contain traces of soy.”
- Market your allergy-friendly products by specifically denoting them on the menu. For instance, the labels “Gluten-free” and “Dairy-free” immediately catch the attention of guests with allergies.
- Offer substitutions, such as gluten-free rolls, dairy-free creamer, and dishes prepared with vegetable oil in place of peanut oil.
- Include a notice on your menu and menu boards that reads “Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy” (this notice is currently required by law in Massachusetts).
If you do not have the resources, staff training, or ingredients to accommodate a customer with a food allergy, be honest with them. This can be noted in a menu with a simple disclaimer, such as “We cannot guarantee that food allergens will not be transferred through accidental cross-contact.”
Top Three Approaches to Allergen Management
While choosing an approach to food allergy management can seem daunting, remember that it all begins with effective communication between customers, restaurant staff, and food suppliers. Food Service Equipment and Supplies offers these top three approaches to allergen management:
1. Understand what the customer's allergen is and whether the restaurant can accommodate that person
2. Understand your ingredients and read their labels
3. Communication between front of the house and back of the house staff regarding a customer's particular allergy is critical