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Everything You Should Know About Food Allergies

Everything You Should Know About Food Allergies

Last updated on 9/21/2017

If you run a foodservice business or cafeteria, it's important to be aware of any food allergies among your patrons. Studies show that roughly 2% of adults and 5% of infants and young children in the United States suffer from food allergies, and around 30,000 consumers require emergency room treatment for allergic reactions to food each year. Accordingly, accommodating individuals with food allergies is crucial to keeping them safe as they dine at your establishment. Keep reading to learn more about food allergies and restaurants, allergen labeling, how to protect your patrons, and more!

Understanding Food Allergies
Cross-Contact: What It Is and How to Avoid It
Cross-Contamination: What It Is and How to Avoid It
The "Big Eight" Food Allergens
Allergen-Safe Restaurant Supplies
Creating an Allergen-Safe Restaurant Menu
FALCPA Compliance
Allergen-Safe School Foodservice

Understanding Food Allergies

Understandably, even customers with mild food allergies are cautious about eating out. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that the number of individuals with food allergies has continued to rise during the past decade. Additionally, according to ServSafe, half of fatal episodes from allergic reactions to food occur outside of the home. However, there is currently no legislation stating that restaurants must accommodate customers with food allergies.

While safely serving patrons with food allergies may seem complicated and risky, there are a number of ways to earn their trust. Start by understanding specifically what their allergen is and deciding whether your restaurant can safely prepare their meal. It's also essential to ensure proper communication between your front- and back-of-house staff regarding a customer's particular allergy. Finally, you must be knowledgeable about your ingredients and know how to read their labels to detect any and all known allergens.

Cross-Contact: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Cross-contact is defined as the transfer of an allergen from a food containing the allergen to a food that doesn't contain the allergen. When different foods come into contact with one another, their proteins mix. At that point, each food contains trace amounts of the other food that are usually too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Important note: Unlike cross-contamination, cooking does not eliminate or reduce the likelihood of a person with a food allergy having a reaction to the contaminated food.

How to Avoid Cross-Contact

There are number of easy ways to avoid cross-contact at your foodservice establishment.

Practice Proper Sanitation

Ensure your staff is washing, rinsing, and properly sanitizing cookware, utensils, and equipment after they've handled a food allergen. Using soap and water is a must, as simply wiping leftover food from surfaces doesn't completely remove the allergen. Additionally, your prep cooks and chefs should wash their hands and change gloves before coming into contact with known allergens.

Use Separate Equipment

Your employees should also be using separate equipment to prepare meals for customers with food allergies. This includes fryers, grills, flattops, blenders, and other machines, all of which can become contaminated with leftover allergens when not cleaned properly. This is especially important between shifts, as some breakfast foods cooked with particular equipment may contain allergens that lunch foods cooked with that same piece of equipment do not.

Create a Serving Plan

Once an allergen-sensitive customer's meal is ready to serve, it's important to have a serving plan in place. Consider using a different colored bowl or plate to designate their meal, and you can also use a colored ticket or food pick to indicate special handling.

Most importantly, ensure your servers are delivering allergen-sensitive meals separately. Employees will usually bring several plates to the table at the same time in close proximity to one another, but this delivery method cannot be used when serving guests with food allergies.

Cross-Contamination: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Cross-contamination is at the root of most foodborne illnesses and is caused when bacteria and other microorganisms contaminate foods during storage and preparation. Unlike cross-contact, in most cases, proper cooking of contaminated food will reduce or eliminate the chances of foodborne illness.

While it's different from cross-contact, cross-contamination can still contribute to the potential for allergic reactions at your restaurant. Here are some of the most important steps you can follow to limit the chances of cross-contamination:

  • Store raw meat and seafood on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator in a sealed container or bag to ensure juices don't drip onto other foods.
  • Keep washed produce in clean, color-coded storage containers, rather than placing them back into their original packaging.
  • Use color-coded kitchen equipment, which includes (but is not limited to) cutting boards, serving and preparation utensils, thermometers, food markers, and kitchen hand tools.

Being aware of cross-contamination and knowing how to avoid it can help you keep all of your customers safe and healthy.

The "Big Eight" Food Allergens


Top Eight Food Allergens

While there are over 160 known sources of food allergens, a small group of allergens known as the "Big Eight" are responsible for a whopping 90% of all food allergy reactions. Consumption of these foods by affected individuals are also most likely to result in severe or life-threatening allergic reactions.

1. Dairy Milk

A dairy milk allergy is one of the most common food allergies in infants and young children. Individuals who are allergic to cow's milk should also avoid milk from other domestic animals.

Common Sources: Butter, cheese, pudding, sour cream.

Unexpected Sources: Caramel, chocolate, lunch meat, steaks.

2. Eggs

Many people are also allergic to eggs, including young children. The whites of an egg contain the proteins that cause allergic reactions, but it's essential for sensitive individuals to avoid eggs altogether since it's impossible to completely separate the whites and yolks.

Common Sources: Baked goods, macaroni, marshmallows, mayonnaise.

Unexpected Sources: Foam topping on drinks, egg wash for baked goods.

3. Peanuts

Peanuts are different from tree nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, and cashews. Instead, they grow underground and are in the same family as beans, peas, lentils, and soybeans. Peanuts and tree nuts often come into contact with one another during the manufacturing and serving processes.

Common Sources: Baked goods, candy, peanut butter, mixed nuts.

Unexpected Sources: Chili, egg rolls, pancakes, meat substitutes.

4. Tree Nuts

Tree nuts include cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and almonds. Most individuals who are allergic to one kind of tree nut are also allergic to other types. Tree nuts and peanuts often come into contact with one another during the manufacturing and serving processes.

Common Sources: Nut butters, pesto, artificial nuts, coconut.

Unexpected Sources: Cereals, energy bars, flavored coffee, Italian sausage.

5. Fish

Over 50% of people who are allergic to one type of fish are also allergic to other types of fish. Affected individuals should avoid seafood restaurants and fish markets, as there is a high risk of cross-contact at these places.

Common Sources: All types of fish.

Unexpected Sources: Barbecue sauce, caesar dressing, meatloaf, worcestershire sauce.

6. Shellfish

Shellfish falls into two groups: crustacea (shrimp, crab, lobster) and mollusks (clams, mussels, oysters, scallops). Crustacea are responsible for the majority of shellfish reactions, which are usually severe. Being allergic to shellfish doesn't always mean an individual is also allergic to fish, but they should still exercise caution.

Common Sources: All types of shellfish.

Unexpected Sources: Asian dishes that use fish sauce as a flavor base.

7. Soy

A member of the legume family, soybeans alone are not typically found in American diets. However, they're frequently used in processed food products and form the basis of many meat substitutes.

Common Sources: Edamame, soy sauce, tempeh, tofu.

Unexpected Sources: Canned tuna, processed meat, crackers, canned soups.

8. Wheat

The final member of the Big Eight is wheat, which is also at the root of gluten intolerance. If your guests are allergic to wheat, use alternate grains like barley, quinoa, rice, and rye.

Common Sources: Bread, couscous, flour, seitan.

Unexpected Sources: Ice cream, imitation crab, marinara sauce, processed meat.

While sesame is widely considered to be the ninth common allergen, current U.S. federal law does not require food manufacturers to declare it.

Download a PDF with even more information on the top eight food allergens.

Allergen-Safe Restaurant Supplies

To keep your restaurant safe for customers with allergies, always use color-coded kitchen supplies. These can range from knives and containers to tongs and measuring cups, so it's essential to take stock of your entire inventory before purchasing allergen-safe kitchen tools. Purple products are most commonly used to prepare meals for guests with food allergies. To completely eliminate the risk of cross-contact, designate equipment to be used only for allergen-sensitive meals and ensure it's labeled and stored separately.

Check out the following allergen-safe foodservice supplies:

Allergy Food Markers
Allergy Food Markers from $2.97
Purple Slotted Turners
Purple Slotted Turners from $3.29
Purple Tongs
Purple Plastic Tongs from $3.29
Purple Dishers
Purple Dishers from $4.69

Creating an Allergen-Safe Restaurant Menu

A concise restaurant menu is your first line of defense in protecting guests with food allergies, so be sure to craft yours accordingly. Consider doing the following:

  • Use text, icons, and other abbreviations on your menu to denote the Big Eight.
  • Provide a general restaurant menu disclaimer for food items that cannot be altered to accommodate food allergies. For example, say, "All fried items are prepared in oil that is also used to cook shellfish, fish, and breaded items."
  • Offer substitutions like gluten-free rolls, dairy-free creamer, and dishes prepared with vegetable oil, rather than peanut oil.
  • Market allergy-friendly meals by specifically denoting them on your menu and menu boards.
  • 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."

Whether you run a fine dining restaurant, family-style buffet, or sports bar, creating a concise menu that explicitly addresses food allergens will help your establishment better accommodate all of your customers.

FALCPA Compliance

If you're a food supplier, it's essential that you stay in compliance with FALCPA (Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act) requirements. Keep reading to learn more.

What is FALCPA?

FALCPA requires that any food regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) be labeled in a specific way to identify any of the "Big Eight" allergens. This makes it easy for consumers and restaurateurs to quickly determine common allergens. FALCPA is an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and applies to all food products labeled on or after January 1, 2006.

How FALCPA Impacts Your Business

The FDA sometimes conducts inspections of foodservice businesses and also has the authority to make companies recall products with undeclared food allergens. If you run a retail or foodservice establishment that packages, labels, and sells products for human consumption, FALCPA labeling applies to your business. This includes packaged foods, conventional foods, vitamins, dietary supplements, infant foods, medical foods, items in vending machines, and packages labeled "for individual sale."

Generally, meat, poultry, and alcoholic beverages aren't subject to FALCPA labeling. Meat, poultry, and most egg products are already regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Alcohol, Tobacco Tax, and Trade Bureau monitors alcoholic beverages and tobacco items. Similarly, fresh fruits and vegetables, highly-refined oils derived from a member of the Big Eight, and food placed in containers in response to a person's order are exempt from FALCPA labeling.

FALCPA labeling also applies to all packaged foods other than USDA-regulated foods. Similarly, flavors, colors, and additives that contain any Big Eight allergens must be labeled.

Businesses that do not comply with FALCPA labeling requirements can be subject to the civil and criminal penalty provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Any products with undeclared allergens will also be subject to recall. Companies that believe their food product should be exempt from FALCPA can petition the secretary of Health and Human Services with scientific evidence to back up their claim.

FALCPA Labeling Requirements

FALCPA labeling requirements are met if the common or usual name of an ingredient (i.e. buttermilk) that is a major food allergen already identifies that allergen's food source name (i.e., milk). Otherwise, the allergen's food source name must be declared at least once on the food label in one of two ways:

1. In parentheses following the name of the ingredient. For example: "Lecithin (soy), Flour (wheat), and Whey (milk)."

2. Immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a "contains" statement. For example: "Contains Soy, Wheat, and Milk."


Food Allergy Nutrition Labels

Adhering to FALCPA labeling requirements not only keeps your customers safe, but also helps protect your business from potential liabilities.

Allergen-Safe School Foodservice

Statistically speaking, children are more susceptible to food allergy reactions in school settings. The CDC reports that 16-18% of children with food allergies have had allergic reactions due to the accidental ingestion of allergens while at school. Additionally, 25% of food-induced anaphylaxis reactions in schools occur among students without a previous food allergy diagnosis.

Certain federal laws mandate that schools must provide appropriate accommodations, substitutions, and services to children with life-threatening food allergies. Similarly, life-threatening food allergies may be considered a disability.

Ensuring Student Safety

To ensure students stay safe in your school cafeteria or at any off-campus school-sponsored activities, be sure to take the following steps:

  • Identify students with allergies and develop a written management plan for addressing allergic reactions that includes medication protocols.
  • Collect the proper documentation from allergen-sensitive students, including a diet prescription from a licensed healthcare provider.
  • Effectively execute your school's management plan in the event that a student experiences an allergic reaction on school grounds.

Additionally, you can avoid cross-contact at your cafeteria's serving line by:

  • Placing allergen and nutrition cards on food shields and sneeze guards.
  • Use proprietary guards to eliminate cross-contact.
  • Don't use the same ladle, tongs, scoop, or other utensils to serve more than one specific dish or ingredient.

Knowing how to protect your school, university, or daycare's students from known food allergens and being ready to effectively address potential reactions is essential to running a successful educational facility.


Accommodating patrons with food allergies is not only a matter of public health and safety, but it can also provide increased revenue opportunities. You can easily earn your customers' trust by offering ingredient substitutions, managing cross-contact, and including accurate food allergy disclaimers. Doing so will help your guests feel comfortable as they dine at your establishment and keep them coming back for years to come!

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