As food allergies continue to become more prevalent, it may come as a surprise that there is still inconsistency among food manufacturers and restaurants regarding the way they address allergen labeling. In a session at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo titled “Food Allergy Nation and the Role of RDs,” Joe Baumert, an assistant professor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Junehee Kwon, an associate professor from Kansas State University, discussed the discrepancies often seen in food labeling and what foodservice professionals can do to assist consumers with food allergies.
Despite the increasing number of people with food allergies and intolerance, some media outlets continue to portray food allergies as less serious than they actually are, Baumert said. Stories that say parents are overreacting to their child’s peanut allergy or downplay the seriousness of diseases such as Celiac can perpetuate insensitivity toward people with food allergies and cause foodservice outlets to use less caution when it comes to making sure allergens are properly labeled and handled.
Packaged foods are notoriously inconsistent when it comes to allergy warnings, Baumert said. The government requires that food makers warn consumers about the presence of the top eight potential allergens (fish, shellfish, soy, eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts and wheat), but there is no real regulation of how this information is presented, or whether the label must include trace amounts or the possible presence of an allergen. A lack of standard language or even a standardized place on the package mean that consumers can easily be confused about exactly what is in a certain product.
Kwon showed a picture of a label from a peanut candy bar that read “may contain peanuts,” which elicited laughs from the audience, but it’s clear that in cases of food allergies, manufacturers are better safe than sorry. Investing in informative, helpful packaging is a smart move for food and beverage companies, since they can help win the brand loyalty of the ever-increasing population of people with food allergies. “If [people with food allergies] know they ate a certain brand in the past, they may continue to go toward that brand,” Baumert said.
The same goes for restaurants. Kwon said the majority of allergic reactions take place in restaurants, usually because of a communication failure between the restaurant and the customer, or between the front and back of house. Customers can do their part by clearly communicating any food allergies as specifically as possible.
Eateries can minimize risk by clearly listing ingredients on the menu. Complicated dishes with long lists of ingredients probably aren’t going to be listed on the menu in detail, but making a complete ingredient list available can be helpful for dishes with “hidden” ingredients. “For example a Chinese restaurant may not be listing peanuts in the ingredients, but they may be using peanut butter in closing the egg rolls,” Kwon said.
Even restaurants that do everything right when it comes to labeling and food safety should never guarantee the complete absence of a certain ingredient. A chef may be sure that not a speck of peanut touched a certain dish, but even a small amount can provoke a reaction from a sensitive customer. So don’t make any promises you can’t keep.
Servers and chefs should also remember that their comments about a patron’s food allergy can be hurtful. Kwon cited a story from TODAY that described the epidemic of chefs who refuse to make special orders or share the ingredients of a dish. Servers should also be mindful of how they interact with customers who have food allergies. If a customer comes in with a beef allergy, Kwon said, a waiter saying “I’ve never heard of that” or asking “Do you mean you’re a vegetarian?” can sound a lot like “I think you’re making this up” to the customer.
It also helps for restaurant staff to be aware of the different types of food allergies that exist. The list is longer than some people may realize, and includes everything from common nut or milk allergies to more rare sensitivities, such as celery.
Kwon suggests restaurants use special systems in the back of house to help with keeping special orders allergen-free, such as using a differently shaped plate for all diners with a dietary restriction.
By recognizing the reality of food allergies in America and making some of these small but important changes in labeling and behavior, restaurants and food manufacturers can increase customer safety and satisfaction.