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How to Handle Customers with Food Allergies

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shelley kilpatrick | June 4, 2019 | 0

How to Handle Customers with Food Allergies

No matter where you work in a restaurant—front of the house or back of the house—hopefully your managers are continually stressing the danger of food allergies and what you can do to prevent them.

They do that because it’s easy to contaminate even “safe” foods with allergens. And a severe allergic reaction can kill a customer …right in your restaurant.

Food allergy versus food intolerance

A food allergy is not the same as food intolerance. Food intolerance is a digestive problem that comes about after eating some foods. Food intolerance is generally not life-threatening.

A food allergy is much different. It is a response from your immune system triggered by a protein in a particular food. Your immune system thinks the protein is harmful and over-responds.

Facts about food allergies

According to the Wake County, NC web site, the eight most common food allergens are eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. There are about 150-200 tragic deaths a year caused by food allergies. Teens are more likely to die from a food allergy reaction than adults.

Only five states—Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Virginia—have passed food allergy awareness laws to make it safer for people with food allergies to eat out.

Avoidance and prevention are key

There is no “cure” for food allergies. New statistics from the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website in February 2019 finds 32 million Americans have food allergies. One in 10 adults reports food allergies, and half of them have experienced a severe reaction. Also, one in 13 kids -5.6 million—have food allergies, and 42% have experienced a severe reaction.

Usually, the severe reaction causes anaphylaxis (pronounced an-uh-fil-LAX-is). It is potentially life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms of anaphylaxis can affect breathing and blood circulation and can include swelling of the lips, tongue and throat, hives, difficulty breathing, stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.

H3: Learning about food allergies in restaurants.

FARE has produced many outstanding information pieces for both restaurants and customers including a poster created just for restaurants:

FARE stresses that cross-contamination is not only a problem with bacteria and pathogens. Cross-contamination is one way many safe foods end up contaminated with food allergens. FARE lists these sources of contact in the typical food service establishment:

  • Cooking oils, splatter, and steam from cooking foods.
  • Allergen-containing foods touching or coming into contact with allergy-free foods (i.e., a nut-containing muffin touching a nut-free bread).
  • All utensils (i.e., spoons, knives, spatulas, tongs), cutting boards, bowls, pots, food pans, sheet pans, preparation surfaces.
  • Fryers and grills.

Proper cleaning and sanitizing are critical, too. FARE advises all to wash hands and change gloves after handling potential food allergens. Also, any food equipment used for the processing of allergy-free foods must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before use.

What to do if a customer goes into anaphylaxis

Knowing what to do in case of anaphylaxis is not just for the front of the house people. A customer could be in or near the restroom or walking out the door when the symptoms hit.

If a customer appears to be or tells you they are experiencing an allergic reaction:

  • DO NOT ARGUE with them or defend the restaurant.
  • Call 911, request an ambulance with Epinephrine for an allergic reaction.
  • Have someone find and tell a manager.
  • Inject Epinephrine immediately. Most people with severe allergies carry an “Epipen”. This simple device contains a dose of Epinephrine, a medicine that temporarily counters the allergic reaction. It also includes an enclosed needle for someone to inject the person. Do not hesitate to inject it. It is a life-saver!
  • Lay the person flat and raise their legs. If it’s hard for them to breathe or they are vomiting, they can sit up or lie on their side.
  • After 5 minutes and the ambulance has not arrived, another dose of Epinephrine can be given if the person’s symptoms are not better.

Help customers with food allergies enjoy their meal

FARE advises if a customer tells you they have a food allergy, take it seriously. If you are the server or host, they may give you a “chef card” to show to the chef on duty. It explains exactly what they are allergic to and what the reaction could be. Be sure the chef takes note of it.

Make sure you also understand their allergy and how it could be caused not only by ingredients but by cross-contamination. If you don’t understand, bring a manager over to talk to them.

Suggest simple menu items that don’t have many ingredients such as baked potato, broiled chicken, or steamed vegetable. You may want to advise them to avoid fried and grilled foods because of cross-contact.

Be especially wary of many desserts. They contain many ingredients and often come from outside sources, so you don’t always know what’s in them.

Learn how to avoid and prevent food allergies

Our one-hour online course in food allergy training goes into more detail about many of the points here. It also describes how to properly prepare an allergen safe meal for a food allergic customer and presents a case study on how to serve a food allergic guest.

Find out more and start learning today.

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