How to Manage Food Allergies in Foodservice

How to Manage Food Allergies in Foodservice

Kate loves good food and dines out often for business. After a serious illness, however, the high-powered executive can no longer tolerate gluten, dairy or hazelnuts (aka filberts). Staff who take her carefully-expressed concerns seriously earn her loyalty and a generous tip. When not taken seriously, which happens often, she has spent terrified minutes wondering if she’d need an ambulance as her throat closed up and countless days with debilitating cramps.

Like Kate, many of the more than three million Canadians with food allergies enjoy eating out and become regulars when they find a restaurant they trust. As the number of customers with serious allergies grows, it’s time to devise a plan for your operation. That includes educating staff in front and back of house about allergies, knowing what to do if a reaction occurs and treating customers with respect despite your personal views on the subject.

Waitstaff helping and serving customers 

Food Allergies - The Big Eight

Any food can be an allergen. Symptoms can develop quickly and range from hives, swelling, coughing and cramps to dizziness, trouble breathing and a drop in blood pressure that may leave the person unconscious and even dead within minutes of anaphylactic shock.

The following food allergens represent 90% of cases in restaurants. These ingredients often hide in products you might not think to question. Health Canada has also named sesame seeds, mustard and sulphites as “priority” allergens.

Food intolerances, while not life-threatening, can still cause considerable discomfort.

1. Dairy

An allergy to cow’s milk can affect people of any age. Common sources are butter, cheese, pudding, sour cream and chocolate. While you’re at it check the label on your luncheon meats. If a person is allergic to the protein in cow’s milk, not just lactose, goat, buffalo and sheep products are also off limits. And if your chef finishes sauces or rice with a touch of butter or regularly butters bread or buns beware, you could make someone very ill.

2. Eggs

Egg whites contain proteins that may trigger an allergic reaction. Since it’s impossible to completely separate whites from yolks, avoid baked goods, egg pasta, mayonnaise and the foam on a gin fizz or whisky sour. Has your pastry been brushed with egg wash?

3. Peanuts

Though dangerous to many allergy sufferers, these underground legumes appear in many processed and baked goods as well as in mixed nuts and African, Asian and Mexican dishes. Check product labels; if you see “may come in contact” do not serve that food item to anyone with a nut allergy.

4. Tree nuts

Tree nuts include almonds, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios and coconut. Individuals allergic to one kind of tree nut may also be allergic to others. Beware nut butters and pesto. Check the label on cereals, energy bars, even flavoured coffee. The use of nut oils may also endanger customers. “Even a dessert cut on the same chopping board as a hazelnut can affect my ability to breathe,” Kate says.

5. Fish

Half of those allergic to one type of fish are also allergic to other types. Unexpected sources include Caesar dressing, meatloaf and Worcestershire sauce (there is a vegan version).

6. Shellfish

Shellfish falls into two camps, crustaceans (shrimp, crab, lobster), which cause the most severe reactions and mollusks (mussels, clams, oysters, scallops). Asian dishes containing fish sauce may also pose a risk.

7. Soy

Soybeans (edamame, tofu, tempeh, soy sauce) and their oil are frequently used in processed foods and in meat substitutes. Surprise sources include canned tuna, processed meat, crackers and canned soup.

8. Wheat

At the heart of gluten intolerance, wheat is found in a shocking number of products. While bread and flour are easy to identify, add couscous, farro, bulgur, spelt, pasta, “modified starch,” batter-fried fish, processed meat, barley and rye to the list.

Kate recalls being presented with salmon on a bed of barley in a fine-dining restaurant. She explained to the server why she couldn’t eat it and he offered to bring a new one. When she lifted up the “new” salmon she found grains of barley stuck to it.

“Don’t lie or treat me like I really don’t need a food accommodation,” she says. Though she received a contrite apology from management the next day, she’s never returned to any of the group’s restaurants.

Plates and bowls of different foods

Communication counts

• Ensure staff take allergy requests seriously and know the potential consequences.

• Decide how to handle requests and answer questions from first contact until the food is served. Everyone should know their role.

• Some restaurants ask about allergies when confirming the reservation. Relay this information to all staff who prepare, plate, serve and deliver the order.

• At the table, ask if there are any food allergies or intolerances you should be aware of.

• Ask the customer for more information on their allergy before you substitute ingredients. Don’t guess and don’t decide for them.

• Servers must be well-versed in menu items, ingredients and preparation techniques.

• Provide guests with easy access to ingredient information and to managers.

• Menus should be clearly written.

“Please don’t have one dish for the ‘problem people,’” says Kate. “I resent being offered the vegan, dairy-free, nut free, allergen-free item as my only option. It’s offensive and feels like I’m being told to go away.”

• Keep the customer in the loop. If a question arises, bring out the bottle or package and let he/she decide whether to eat it.

• Never assume sufferers can handle “a little bit” of an allergen.

• Some restaurants have dedicated floor staff to discuss a customer’s accommodation needs. The same person delivers the food to the table for reassurance. “There’s nothing more embarrassing than having to shout your needs across the table,” says Kate, “or ask the expediter if the food is prepared as requested because they won’t know.”

• When something goes wrong, staff should know what to do and where to find emergency numbers.

• Designate a staffer to remain with the customer until help arrives.

• Stay up to date with available professional resources like those available at Food Allergy Canada.

Restaurant dishes of food

Prevent cross-contamination

To prevent an allergic reaction, preventing cross-contamination is key. One breadcrumb, French fries cooked in the same oil as breaded items or even burgers and buns flipped on the grill with the same spatula can make someone with celiac disease (an immune system disorder that reacts to gluten) extremely ill.

• Keep all ingredient labels on food products coming into your kitchen and update as necessary,

• Document and alert kitchen and wait staff when an allergen-free meal is ordered.

• Prepare this meal first using separate cookware and serving utensils.

• Don’t substitute ingredients.

• Wash your hands often.

• Carefully wash all utensils, pans and cutting boards with dish detergent and hot water. Then sanitize. Use a separate dishcloth.

• Sanitize surfaces before storing, preparing or serving the meal.

• Don’t think removing an item added by accident or putting it back on the stove or in the fryer will get rid of the allergen, two common misconceptions.

• Double-check online orders before they leave the kitchen.

Colour coded kitchen equipment and supplies for managing allergies

Tips for an allergen-safe kitchen

· If possible, outfit a separate area with equipment that can be contaminated easily if not properly cleaned. These include fryers, grills, flat tops, slicers and blenders.

· Consult with the customer if needed about preparation methods. For example, laying foil across a grill used for meat and fish before cooking their steak.

· Colour-coded equipment, from cutting boards to storage containers for washed produce, helps separate ingredients so you’re not chopping peanuts on the same board as salad veggies.

· Consider a line of purple kitchen tools, the designated colour for allergen-free cooking.

· Colourful knife handles are also useful: green for fresh veggies, white for dairy, yellow for raw poultry, red for raw meat and brown for cooked, blue for raw fish.

· A different-coloured plate or bowl can also distinguish allergy-friendly meals, or buy food markers to indicate special handling.

Making an effort to accommodate allergies and give the customer an enjoyable experience is good for business. Repeat business.

“In the good places,” says Kate, “the staff are aware of my needs, the ingredients in the offerings and are knowledgeable about allergens. They make me feel special, not punished.”

Written by Cynthia David

Food allergens