Think about how many customers come through a popular restaurant or bar on a Friday night, and then try to imagine how many of those customers suffer some type of food allergy. Researchers estimate 15 million Americans —about one in every 20 of us–have food allergies. The percentage is higher for kids. That means a significant number of diners put their health at risk just by the simple act of eating out.
May is allergy awareness month. However, this issue should always be top of mind for anyone working in food service. That is because suffering from a food allergy can mean more than just the occasional itchy throat or puffy eyes. Food allergies send a person to the emergency room every three minutes. (And no, it’s not the same person each time.) Persons with food allergies are vulnerable to some of the most common food ingredients, including peanuts, tree nuts, milk, soy eggs, shellfish, and even wheat. Often, their reactions are “only” a shortness of breath or low blood pressure. But many persons with food allergies can suffer anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening reaction to the introduction of an allergen.
Awareness is paying off
No one wants to be responsible for sending someone into anaphylactic shock. So yes, bartenders, servers, and anyone else involved in food prep must be aware of food allergies and what can cause them. The good news is awareness efforts are working. For example, a few short years ago, the idea of gluten-free items on a menu—even at an Italian restaurant serving a zillion different pasta dishes—would have been hard to imagine. But more choices of allergy sufferers are due in part of awareness efforts. It has also spurred lawmakers at local and state levels to take action.
A growing number of states and cities are passing laws to make sure everyone involved in food prep is aware of food allergy dangers. If you have noticed a poster with information on allergies in a food prep area, give credit to allergy awareness efforts. In New York City, for example, food service establishments must prominently display food information posters in five languages. Restaurants in Rhode Island are required to have food allergy posters in their staff areas. But they also must place a notice on menus telling customers they have an obligation to inform their servers of any allergies.
Proper training is essential
Food allergy awareness goes beyond just simply knowing such a thing exists. Food safety training is also becoming a matter of law. Virginia, for instance, includes training standards in its food allergy legislation. But even in places where food allergy training is not yet the law, education is still essential. Sure, it may be obvious that a patron with a shellfish allergy should avoid the lobster bisque. And it may seem like common knowledge to keep prep areas clean to avoid contamination. But how do you go about keeping areas and equipment clean and how do you ensure one type of food does not contaminate another? This is where proper allergy awareness training comes into play. Courses for food handlers and food managers are essential to ensuring proper protection against food allergies.
Make sure you are well-armed with knowledge about food allergies.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology
Food Allergy Research & Education