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Restaurants and foodservice educate themselves on food allergies

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Restaurant and Foodservice

In years past, it has been largely up to the consumer or the parent to protect themselves from exposure to allergens when dining out or grabbing prepared foods at the grocery store, but that’s changing as foodservice professionals learn more about the dangers and how to keep their patrons safe, says William Weichelt, director of the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program. The online training program gives restaurant operators, managers and front- and back-of-the-house staffers basic training that gives them a good start for safely feeding guests with food allergies.

The NRA also advises operators to designate point people who will serve as allergy experts, Weichelt said, largely because having someone who can talk to allergy-affected guests with authority can foster confidence that keeps allergic customers coming back. “The person with the food allergy needs to feel comfortable that there’s someone who knows what to do next,” he said.

That expertise is key in situations where the meal is made from several ingredients, and some of those ingredients like dressings and sauces can contain another long list of substances. To further complicate things, manufacturers often change up their recipes, so someone in the restaurant needs to keep up on those changes.

Lee Goodfriend’s decades in the restaurant business have included several brushes with allergy scares, from the guest who didn’t alert servers to her peanut allergy to the server who knew the salad was egg-free but forgot to check the ingredients in the dressing.

“We are very cautious with it,” said Goodfriend, the co-owner of Racine’s in Denver. “We tell our servers and our bartenders to make sure to get the manager involved if it’s anything like that.”

ServSafe was designed to be helpful for all types of foodservice operations, Weichelt said, including supermarket prepared food sections where a growing number of consumers grab dinner on any given night.

Last year, as Weichelt gave presentations on food allergies to groups of restaurateurs, there was a common worry in the audience, he said.

“There’s this fear of needing to do a Herculean effort to accommodate a person with a food allergy. A lot of times it doesn’t require a separate kitchen, it just requires a base of knowledge. Say you have one grill, and someone has a peanut allergy. If you have been using peanut oil on the grill, you can use foil to protect the food. There are a lot of tricks and ways you can make sure the food is cooked safely for them.”

NPD Group’s Harry Balzer has also seen a slight bump in consumers claiming food allergies in recent years, from 2.7% to 4.1% between 2001 and 2013. The number of people affected by allergies, including parents who must police what their allergic children eat every day, probably now totals about 8% of the population, Balzer said.

Some 15 million Americans, including one in 13 children, cope with food allergies, according to the group Food Allergy Research & Education, with many at risk for life-threatening reactions. The number of people suffering from food allergies rose about 50% between 1997 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Researchers are working to figure out why, while foodservice establishments work to improve the way they cater to affected customers.

Eight foods cause 90% of allergic reactions in the U.S., according to FARE. They are:

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