An estimated 4 percent of the population, or about 12 million Americans, suffer from food allergies. At the present time, there is no cure for a food allergy. Avoidance is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction.
When a person eats a food he or she is allergic to, a reaction may move swiftly through the body, causing a range of symptoms that can include swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat, difficulty breathing, hives, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of consciousness.
When individuals with food allergies dine away from home, they must rely on food service staff to provide them with accurate information about ingredients so that they can make an informed decision about what to order. Incorrect or incomplete information puts these individuals at risk for an allergic reaction.
Planning and education are the keys to safely serving a guest who has food allergies. All food service staff including managers, servers, and kitchen staff, must be familiar with the issues related to food allergies and the proper way to answer guests' questions. They must know what to do if an allergic reaction occurs.
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is an immune system response to a food protein that the body mistakenly believes is harmful. Once the immune system decides that a particular food is harmful, it creates specific antibodies to fight it. The immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, including histamine, in order to protect the body thus triggering an allergic reaction.
What are major food allergens?
While more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions, the 8 most common account for 90 percent of all food allergic reactions. A major food allergen is defined as one of the following foods or food groups, or is an ingredient that contains protein derived from one of the following foods or food groups:
- Fish (bass, flounder, cod)
- Crustacean shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp)
- Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans)
Tips to prevent food allergen reactions in food facilities
- Managers should conduct food allergy training and review of the food allergy management plan periodically to be sure that both new hires and existing employees are properly prepared.
- Keep a list of ingredients for all menu items.
- Have at least one person on duty, ideally the manager, who can handle questions and special requests from guests with food allergies. Other staff members should know who that individual is and should direct questions about food allergies to that person.
- Employees should understand how cross-contact can occur. Keep in mind that improper garnishing or handling of a dish can contaminate an otherwise safe meal.
- If a mistake occurs with the special order, the only acceptable way to correct the situation is to have the kitchen staff discard the incorrect order and remake it.
- If a guest is having an allergic reaction, call 911 and get medical help immediately!
Food allergen resources
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) is a nonprofit organization established to raise public awareness, to provide advocacy and education, and to advance research on behalf of all those affected by food allergies and anaphylaxis.
FAAN's Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies free download.
Are you looking for food allergen training?
Emerging Trends I online module covers the topic of food allergens. Purchase the module for $20 and use it for staff training
Food allergen training online course for food service employees. This one-hour online course teaches food handlers about food allergies and the important role they have to protect the health of their customers, clients, or students. Group viewing available for employee training. Contact Connie Schwartau, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reviewed 2011 by Suzanne Driessen