Customer Food Allergies Can Cause Serious Damage
A Massachusetts woman sued a popular Mexican restaurant chain after she was served food containing gluten—even after she informed the staff of her allergy.
In Oregon, a man ordered a fast-food chicken sandwich without pickles—he’s allergic—but the employee thought he wanted extra pickles. After nearly dying, he sued the restaurant for nearly $10,000.
A mother in New York filed a lawsuit earlier this year against Chick-fil-A, alleging that an order of chicken nuggets sent her son to the hospital with a severe allergic reaction to dairy products.
Anybody who runs a foodservice establishment these days needs to be hyper-aware (and hyper-vigilant) about the threat posed by customer food allergies. Different individuals can be allergic to many different foods—and even the slightest hint of, say, peanut butter or shellfish consumed by the wrong person can pose serious health risks.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, millions of people across the country suffer food allergies—and you want to be able to meet their dietary needs in your restaurant. There’s no cure for food allergies, so it’s important for restaurants to do what they can to prevent triggering a food allergy. Although most reactions cause mild symptoms, there are many that can be life-threatening.
If you run a food service business or cafeteria, you must educate yourself on common food allergens and how to prevent allergic reactions. Studies show that roughly 2% of adults and 5% of infants and young children in the United States suffer from food allergies, and around 30,000 consumers require emergency room treatment for allergic reactions to food each year. Keep reading to learn more about food allergies, allergen labeling, and how to protect your patrons.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the number of individuals with food allergies has continued to rise during the past decade. Additionally, according to ServSafe, half of fatal episodes from allergic reactions to food occur outside the home.
While safely serving patrons with food allergies may seem complicated and risky, there are several ways to earn their trust. Start by understanding specifically what their allergen is and deciding whether your restaurant can safely prepare their meal. It’s also essential to ensure proper communication between front- and back-of-house staff regarding a customer’s particular allergy. You must be knowledgeable about your ingredients and know how to read labels to detect any known allergens.
Cross-contamination is at the root of most foodborne illnesses and is caused when bacteria and other microorganisms contaminate foods during storage and preparation. In many cases, proper cooking of contaminated food will reduce or eliminate the chances of foodborne illness.
Keeping meat and seafood sealed, properly washing and organizing produce into color-coded containers, and color-coding kitchen knives, utensils, and cutting boards by following the HACCP protocols can help prevent cross-contamination.
Cross-contact is the transfer of an allergen from food containing the allergen to a food that doesn’t contain it. When foods come into contact with one another, their proteins mix. At that point, each food contains trace amounts of the other food that are usually too small to be seen with the naked eye.
Unlike cross-contamination, cooking does not eliminate or reduce the likelihood of a person with a food allergy reacting to the contaminated food.
Steps you can take to reduce the chance of cross-contact include practicing proper sanitation, including washing and sanitizing all kitchen equipment used in preparation; using separate equipment to prepare meals for customers with allergies, and ensuring that prep cooks and chefs wash their hands and change their single-use gloves before and after preparing every meal.
Once an allergen-sensitive customer’s meal is ready to serve, it’s important to have a serving plan in place. Consider using a different colored bowl or plate to designate their meal, and you can also use a colored ticket or food marker to indicate special handling.
Most important, ensure your servers are delivering allergen-sensitive meals separately. Employees will usually bring several plates to the table at the same time near one another, but this delivery method cannot be used when serving guests with food allergies.
It’s also important not to confuse a food allergy with food intolerance. Although they can share similar physical symptoms, they are not interchangeable.
A food allergy triggers the immune system into an abnormal protective mode, creating mild to serious reactions, including anaphylaxis. Meanwhile, food intolerance mostly affects only the digestive system.
Additionally, those with food intolerance may sometimes be able to eat small amounts of the food that trigger their symptoms. There are also treatments for food intolerance to help digest the offending food. A common example of this is to take lactase enzyme pills (Lactaid) if you’re intolerant to lactose.
Celiac disease is not a food allergy or food intolerance but a chronic digestive and immune disorder that damages the small intestine. It is triggered by eating foods containing gluten.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, these are the top 8 most common food allergens:
- Crustacean shellfish
- Tree nuts
According to the Mayo Clinic, common food allergy symptoms include:
- Tingling in the mouth
- Swelling of a part of the body (e.g., mouth, face, throat, etc.)
- Hives or eczema
- Congestion or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain
It’s vital to seek medical help the moment someone shows signs of anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction. Important signs to spot anaphylaxis include:
- Swelling in the throat
- Constricted airways
- Rapid pulse
- Anaphylactic shock (extreme lowering of blood pressure)
- Loss of consciousness
Content courtesy of AMMEX