Food allergies are on the rise, and it is estimated that 15 million Americans are affected, including 5.9 million children under age 18. Adult onset food allergies are increasing as well. With these alarming statistics, it's essential to consider how your establishment is prepared to handle the guest experience for these millions of Americans.
Know Your Menu Inside And Out
Servers and managers need to know which menu items contain the "Big Eight" or "Top Eight" allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy). Other common allergens that do not fall into the Big Eight are buckwheat, celery, lupin, molluscan shellfish, mustard, and seeds like sesame, sunflower, and poppy.
In addition to knowing which menu items contain the allergen, it is important to know what foods are prepared in the same areas of the kitchen to avoid a reaction from cross-contact or cross-contamination. Cross-contact is when the proteins of an allergen mix with other foods or touch the same surfaces as other foods. Food allergy orders should be prepared separate from all areas where the allergen is present in the kitchen. And guests need to be made aware if this separation is not possible so that they can make an informed choice about what to order and whether to eat at your establishment.
If a server is unsure of ingredients or where allergens are prepared in the kitchen, he or she should ask the manager. Similarly, if a customer has any hesitation about the safety of a dish, a manager or chef should be brought to the table to discuss the guests's concerns.
A good safety measure when dealing with food allergies is to have more than one person check ingredient lists and menu items, to be sure that an allergen is not missed.
There is a level of trust required on the part of the food allergic customer, and every effort should be made to communicate how the kitchen prepares food, how equipment and prep areas are cleaned and sanitized, and how food allergens are tracked from order to delivery.
Track Food Allergy Orders from Beginning to End
Servers and kitchen staff need to know which menu items contain the Big Eight allergens and how to avoid cross contamination in the kitchen. Procedures need to be put in place for prep areas, utensils, and equipment. Separate fryers and oils should be used when preparing foods for food allergic customers.
The same principles for avoiding cross-contamination with raw meats can be applied to food allergens. Cutting boards, knives, and anything food touches need to be cleaned and sanitized before being used to prepare an order for a person with a food allergy.
Do you need to step up the allergen program in your kitchen? Watch this video from San Jamar and see how the Saf-T-Zone™ System can help.
There's no such thing as too much information for a person with a food allergy. Be forthcoming with ingredients in each dish, provide menu recommendations that are free of the allergen, and communicate internally. Servers need to communicate the allergy to kitchen staff, and vice versa.
If your establishment has good management practices around food allergies, then you should communicate these to the guest to allay their fears and allow them an enjoyable meal.
Conversely, if you are ill-equipped to handle a food allergy, this should be communicated up front to the customer. For instance, if you're working with a very small kitchen in a tight space, a food allergic guest should be honestly told that it would not be safe for him or her to order off your menu. One lost table will be better for your establishment's reputation than a history of unsafe food handling for food allergic individuals. And the safety of guests should be paramount.
Food prepared for individuals with food allergies should be delivered, covered, and brought to the table separate from other customers' food. A manager or chef should hand deliver the food to the table. From scale platforms to cutting boards to fryer baskets, allergens need to be separated throughout your kitchen.