Most of us think nothing about dining out. Hunger hits, and we quickly devour anything palatable at the next restaurant we see. But for the 15 million Americans with food allergies, it’s not so easy.
For them, a big question mark presents when their stomach growls, “Is there anywhere near that knows how to serve me safely?” Many wait to return home.
A food allergy is an overreaction of the immune system in response to a food protein that it mistakenly sees as harmful. There is no cure for food allergy – those diagnosed must vigilantly avoid their allergen to prevent reactions, the symptoms of which can range from mild rashes to severe, life-threatening anaphylaxis. The problem is, no one can predict when a food allergy reaction will be mild or severe, and there is no cure. Any encounter with the allergen is dangerous, which sets food allergies far apart from food intolerances and lifestyle diets.
Food allergy is a growing public health issue. According to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with food allergies in the U.S. increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. In addition, studies show the number of children living with peanut allergy appears to have tripled between 1997 and 2008.
We don’t know the reasons for the increase, but we do know accurate information about meal ingredients and preparation allows for an informed decision to be made by those at risk. It’s better for a restaurant to say “I don’t know, but I will get you the answer” than to offer incomplete information or guesswork. A wrong guess may send your customer with food allergies to the nearest emergency room.
The good news is if you don’t already know how, you can learn to prepare meals for diners with food allergies. Affordable training is readily available online from both the National Restaurant Association (NRA) and MenuTrinfo. The NRA’s ServSafe Allergens Online Course even offers a 10% discount code: FARE10.
After training, create a Food Allergy Management Plan for your establishment. Make sure you share the lessons learned with servers, cooks and other staff who may not have taken the class, and encourage them to sign up for training too. Research, record, and file the ingredients of everything on your menu, and keep a physical copy to share with customers. Review your storage, cooking, and serving procedures, and wherever possible, make changes to prevent cross-contact with allergens.
Most importantly, maintain open communication with guests who have food allergies. Start the conversation by making food allergies a part of your staff’s basic script. Add information about your food allergy policies to your menu and website. Open dialogue ultimately makes for a safer and more enjoyable experience for your guests with food allergies, and that’s what you want for all of your customers.
Mike Spigler | Vice President of Education | FARE. Mike serves on several national and international food allergy advisory councils, including the National Advisory Board for Food Allergy Management at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and the International Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Alliance.