A skin rash minutes after drinking milk? Vomiting after dining on shellfish? Breathing difficulties after snacking on peanuts? Get to the hospital quick! You could be having a food-allergy attack.
Allergens are substances that trigger the immune system to overreact in certain vulnerable individuals. Food allergens are simply foods or food ingredients that cause an allergic reaction.
A food allergy is an adverse reaction after eating, or even encountering, certain foods and ingredients. Food allergies are generally mild but in rare instances can be very serious and even fatal and should always be treated with caution.
Researchers estimate about 32 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.6 million children under age 18, with symptoms ranging from a simple rash to anaphylaxis (a rare reaction that significantly impairs breathing). The Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), estimates that each year, 200,000 people require emergency medical care for allergic reactions to food in the US.
How Food Allergies are Identified
In the U.S., eight foods cause 90 percent of all food-allergy cases. From highest incidence to lowest, they are:
- Cow’s milk
- Tree nuts (almond, walnut, pecan, or cashew)
All eight are popular food items in restaurants and other food-service establishments—a clear case for allergen training for food handlers.
Testing for Allergies
Testing for food allergies, or any type of allergy, often involves a skin prick test. A skin prick test uses very small needles, each with a trace amount of a potential allergen on its tip, to make a tiny puncture into the skin. This is often done on the back in a grid, organized so that allergists can keep track of which prick is allocated to which allergen. If the area becomes inflamed, that means the individual had an adverse reaction to the allergen.
Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction
Symptoms of an allergic reaction caused by a food allergy include indigestion, vomiting, hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, and even heart problems. Even less severe allergic reactions can cause painful stomach cramps. In the most severe cases, an allergic reaction can cause anaphylactic shock. This sends the body into shock impairing breathing and organ function and can lead to death.
Most commonly, individuals experience less severe symptoms, such as hives, stomach pain, and headaches. An individual with a gluten allergy could become very ill from their food being cut with the same knife used to cut wheat products. Their symptoms can sometimes last days, while their body processes the small amounts of gluten.
Those with nut and shellfish allergies often have the most severe reactions. Even the dust from a peanut ingested by someone with a very severe allergic can lead to an extreme reaction. Exposure to shellfish via unchanged gloves can cause anaphylaxis.
Treating Food Allergies
The most effective treatment for food allergies is avoiding food altogether. That may seem simple enough, but those with food allergies can easily be exposed to the food while eating in restaurants where proper food handling procedures are not being practiced.
Restaurant employees not washing hands or changing gloves, or thoroughly cleaning surfaces and utensils between orders are common culprits in unintentionally causing an allergic reaction.
Importance of Restaurant Food Allergy Training
In recent years, health authorities have noted a sustained upswing in food-allergy cases. This increase is significant enough to force local authorities across the country to require food-service establishments to post a notice containing the following:
- The top eight food allergens
- How the food-service staff should handle a diner having an allergic reaction
- How to prevent allergens from contaminating food items
It’s important to note that not every reaction is the same, even with the same person reacting to the same food. Someone who had a mild reaction last time may have a much more severe reaction if exposed again. Allergic reactions may take place minutes or hours after exposure, so those with food allergies often live with a high level of unpredictability.
Because almost all restaurants have fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat or soy on-site, maybe even all of the above, employees must properly handle food at all times.
Knowledge of food allergens and how to handle food-allergy emergencies could mean life or death. It could also mean good business practices for your customers or an unaffordable lawsuit against your food-service business.
For any commercial kitchen, putting a good food safety program in place goes hand in hand with protection against contamination from food allergens. To do that requires proper training for the kitchen personnel and the waitstaff. Need food handler or food manager training for your crew? Check out our food handler allergy training options.