By: Keeba Smith

Food allergies in children and adults are steady rising.  It is becoming critically necessary for foodservice industry professionals to be properly trained on how to accommodate food allergy guests.  Food allergies affect up to 15 million Americans, which is approximately 5 percent.  These are serious and potentially life-threatening medical conditions.  Every 3 minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room.  One in every 13 children has a food allergy, which is about 2 in every U.S. classroom. And the numbers just keep growing.

Food allergies are among the diseases that are a part of the Atopic March group.  The Atopic March is a term that refers to the progression of allergic diseases in a person’s life: eczema, food allergy, allergic rhinitis, and asthma.  Everyone experiences each condition differently. Some can be mild. Others can be deadly.

Food allergy sufferers are eager to find restaurants that can accommodate their conditions.  Several states – including Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Virginia – have laws designed to make it safer for individuals with food allergies to dine in restaurants.  Food Allergies and Restaurants (FARE) is an organization that works with individuals, policymakers and the restaurant industry groups to advocate on behalf of families managing food allergies.

What Food Allergy Policy Have Some States Implemented?

Massachusetts has a law that requires restaurants to display a food allergy awareness poster in the staff area, on menus, and menu boards.  The display reads, “Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy.”  The law also requires restaurants to have a certified food protection manager who has been issued a Massachusetts certificate of allergen awareness training through a training program recognized by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH).

Illinois, by law, requires restaurants to have at least one manager on duty who has had training in nationally recognized standards for food allergen safety and allergen awareness available at all time while the establishment is in operation.

For two years, advocates, support group members, and government affairs personal in Michigan worked tirelessly to implement a new food safety policy for restaurants.  Michigan requires certified food safety managers in most restaurants to take a training course with an allergen awareness component.

Rhode Island has laws similar to Massachusetts, but it also requires restaurant managers to be trained and knowledgeable about food allergies as it pertains to food preparation.

Virginia requires the state Board of Health and the Commissioner of Health to provide training standards and materials on food safety and food allergy awareness.

Why is Food Allergy Training in Restaurants Important?

Eating out should be an enjoyable experience whether it is at a restaurant, bakery, cafeteria, or fast food establishment.  Anyone with food allergies should be comfortable with the knowledge that the food they are being served is safe.  It shows that the restaurant is willing to go the extra mile accommodate special dietary restrictions.  A simple mistake can have catastrophic consequences.  Employers who invest in employee training and certification courses have a 37 percent higher gross profit per employee.  Severe food allergies may now be considered a disability under the American with Disabilities Act.  It may require all states to have laws for allergy training in restaurants.

The Top Eight Food Allergens

The top eight food allergens account for 90 percent of all allergic reactions are:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Fish
  • Shellfish

Some states have passed laws requiring posters to be placed in every commercial kitchen highlighting the big eight food allergens.  The poster shows the restaurant staff ways and procedures that can best prevent cross-contamination.

Training Restaurant Staff

Training restaurant staff members in food allergies is a continuing process.  Some restaurants only require their staff to watch a 30-60 minutes video but that is not enough.  Comprehensive training can make the difference between life and death.  Restaurants are learning the difference between what food items at intolerant to people, like gluten, and which food items can result in an allergic reaction.  Allergic reactions often times are more severe and could result in death.  Intolerant foods may cause mild to extreme discomfort but are unlikely to become a life or death situation.

Companies such as AllerTrain™ and ServSafe™ offer comprehensive training programs in food allergies.  AllerTrain® Program is a food allergy and gluten-free certificate program that covers essential information about how to safely serve diners with food allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, and Celiac disease.  The course is taught in many different formats to meet the unique needs of any food service operation.

ServSafe™ Allergens Online course is an interactive course that helps restaurant personnel better understand the needs and safety precautions required when serving guest with food allergies.  The course is designed to educate all restaurant workers about the severity of food allergy and precautions that must be taken.

Precautions for Patrons When Dining out

Things to never assume:

  • That a bakery promoting allergy-free food is safe.
  • An item is free from your allergen because it “sounds” free
  • Your server knows all the ingredients, even if he or she says they do.
  • The server, manager, or chef understands the severity of your allergy.

To protect you or a loved one from food allergens, don’t be afraid to ask question and use good judgment.  Try ordering a simple dish and avoid dining out during busy times.  Families and adults who eat out should always carry two (2) auto-injectable epinephrine devices at all times.  Food allergy safety is a joint team effect.