Restaurants Should Never Take Food Allergies Lightly

by Susan Tellem3 Min Read

While food service management may have an allergy accommodation program, it may never be fully instituted or fully communicated to the staff. The Model Retail Food Code, which was modified by the FDA in 2009, says that the “person in charge” of a food establishment must know and understand food allergens and make sure employees are trained on handling food allergy guests and recognize allergy symptoms.

Here’s just one example of why that training is so important. A 72 year-old man told his server he was allergic to seafood. She recommended he order the French fries. The restaurant was extremely busy, which means the kitchen was very busy as well. She served the fries and he ate them. Within 10 to 15 minutes, he felt sick and went to the emergency room. Shortly after he arrived, he died. The cause of death was attributed to anaphylactic shock due to a seafood allergy.

An investigation determined the fries were cooked in the same oil as calamari. The restaurant had written policies in place that stated the food for anyone with a seafood allergy was supposed to be fried in a separate pot with fresh oil. However, no one enforced or followed the rules. The restaurant never offered a clear explanation of how or why the policy was violated.

Either way, the lack of communication among the staff about food allergies probably resulted in the death of this man. His family agreed to settle for $1.2 million. Had the restaurant followed its established allergy program, this tragedy could have been avoided.

Major food allergens to watch out for include: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts and pecans), soybeans, wheat, fish and shellfish (such as crab, lobster and shrimp). Gluten is also becoming a growing concern.

Some tips to manage allergy accommodation include:

  • Having a written policy that is fully communicated to the entire staff
  • Allergy training should be documented and employees should be evaluated for competency Wait staff should be trained on how to effectively listen to the allergy concerns of patrons and how to communicate allergy needs to the kitchen staff.
  • Restaurant should have a master menu that lists all of the ingredients required for each dish in case a patron inquires. The days of “secret recipes” are long gone. Transparency is the new standard.
  • Allergy training should include a section that reviews the signs and symptoms of allergic reactions which could occur within minutes of exposure or as long as two hours.
  • Recognize the most frequent signs of allergies including: a) hives, itching, or skin rash; b) swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body; c) wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing; d) abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting; e) dizziness, light-headedness or fainting.
  • Avoid cross contamination by cleaning all utensils, pans, cooking surfaces and cutting boards.
  • Verify safe cooking oils, marinades, sauces and seasonings.
  • Advisory notice on the menu that states if a person has a medical condition or food allergy to inform the server.
  • Designate one person in the front of the house to deliver allergy safe orders to patrons and one person in the back of the house to prepare it.
  • Allergy programs should be reviewed by a food health and safety expert before training and implementation.
  • Check the expiration date in EpiPen® often.

Of all the issues that a restaurant or cafeteria must deal with, allergy accommodation may not be a priority. However, this can be a life-threatening matter. There are roughly between 200 to 300 reported deaths due to food allergies each year. In addition, there are more than 30,000 emergency room admissions, half of which are due to foodservice-related situations.

Allergy Facts

  • Peanuts are the most common food allergen for children
  • Shellfish and peanuts are the most common food allergens with adults
  • Allergens can be transmitted in frying oil or steam

Serving Tips

  • Sanitize menu jackets between uses
  • Replace condiment containers and holder with a set that has been sanitized
  • Set up a code on order slips that indicates the specific allergen to avoid for the kitchen
  • Have mock allergy rehearsals to test the efficacy of your allergy program
  • Check labels: tuna may contain casein, Worcestershire contains anchovies, soy sauce contains wheat

Tellem Grody PR’s (TGPR) Food Issues Group (FIG) offers crisis coverage for food poisonings, poor letter grades, natural disasters, sexual harassment claims and other crises.  FIG pairs TGPR partner Susan Tellem, APR, RN, BSN, who has 30 years of crisis management experience with Jeff Nelken, MA, RD, an experienced professional in all aspects of food safety and inspection.  For additional information, visit www.tellemgrodypr.com  or email susan@tellemgrodypr.com

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