How confident are you in your restaurant’s food allergy management? According to a recent study of 500 hospitality workers by the software provider Fourth, one in six respondents claimed they had not received regular training or updates with regard to managing guest allergies, Big Hospitality reports. Further, among 1,000 consumers also polled as part of the survey, 36 percent of respondents said their last restaurant meals contained ingredients not listed on the menu. The survey was conducted as a prelude to the 2021 implementation of Natasha’s Law, which will require packaged foods sold on-site at restaurants in the UK to be labeled with a full list of the ingredients they contain. (It was passed after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died after eating a Pret a Manger sandwich that didn’t list an allergen it contained.) While the law will initially apply only to businesses in England, it offers some lessons on how businesses everywhere must change following a food allergy incident: Pret a Manger has overhauled its food allergy program and renovated its facilities in the wake of Ednan-Laperouse’s death.
As food allergies have become more prevalent, so has the use of the term “cross contact.” While it’s often confused with cross contamination, the terms mean different things, have different consequences and require different preparation procedures. As Francine Shaw, president of Savvy Food Safety, told Modern Restaurant Management recently, cross contact is dangerous only to those with food allergies. It occurs when care wasn’t taken during food preparation to prevent an ingredient from coming into contact with a food that is then accidentally eaten by a guest with a food allergy. Cross contamination, particularly when it involves food contact with raw poultry, eggs or meat, has more universal implications because it can make anyone ill, allergic or not.
It may take a crisis to make a restaurant enhance its food safety practices ― but other operators can learn from the outcomes whether they experienced it or not. Case in point: A year after the death of a woman who ate a mislabeled baguette from the quick-service brand Pret-a-Manger, the brand developed a five-point allergy plan. The plan has involved revamping Pret-a-Manger’s labels using new technology to detail all ingredients, launching additional training for 9,000 staff, providing menu tablets in every store that detail product ingredients, removing allergens from products and publishing a quarterly food safety incident report. The plan has required making physical modifications to store preparation areas as well.
Consumers with food allergies are a loyal group. If you strive to improve your restaurant’s allergy awareness, you might take note of some of the restaurant brands around the country that consumers have recognized for their allergy safety practices. AllergyEats, which bills itself as a destination where people who have food allergies or intolerances can find restaurants to accommodate them, recently compiled a list of the top-10 allergy-friendly restaurant chains based on consumer rankings. The list included such large chains as Maggiano’s, Chipotle, Longhorn Steakhouse, In-N-Out Burger and Bertucci’s, as well as smaller chains including Burtons Grill, Flatbread Company, Clyde’s Restaurant Group, 110 Grill and Weber Grill.
You stick to strict cleaning procedures and take steps to avoid the cross-contamination of foods, but how much do you know about the quality of the air in your facility? You may have excess dust accumulating in the air that can contaminate food, or moisture from ovens that can generate condensation and lead to mold. Further, the simple act of cooking can make indoor air as dangerous to breathe as smog, according to new research from HomeChem. Asthma or other respiratory ailments on your kitchen team can signal you have a problem, but you can improve air quality going forward by maintaining appliances and ventilation units routinely, having your air tested for chemical or biological pollutants, replacing old cookware with models that are less likely to contaminate the air, and using natural building materials and decorative elements in your restaurant.
When a London restaurant was informed in advance about a guest with a severe nut allergy coming to dine recently, the restaurant said the guest could either bring his own food and have the restaurant heat it (at a cost of $22), or eat food from the kitchen and sign a waiver acknowledging risk of cross-contamination. While this was a public relations mistake for sure, it demonstrates the pressure restaurants feel to lower the risk of preparing food for guests with allergies. How do your risk management practices measure up? Public health consultants EHA Group advise foodservice operators to assess a food’s path from warehouse to plate, which requires careful communication with your suppliers, distributors and staff. Use a production matrix that labels, tracks and dictates how to handle allergens so you can feel confident about managing them. Isolate allergens in storage and preparation areas, cook allergen-free foods first, change utensils after each item, wash hands thoroughly after handling allergens, change aprons or uniforms when there is a contamination risk, and clean preparation areas and equipment well after handling allergens.
Looking for a loyal guest who will drive miles out of his way to eat at your restaurant? Boost your operation’s allergy awareness and communication. People with food allergies are a vocal and close-knit group, notes Francine Shaw of Savvy Food Safety, and they won’t hesitate to share their experiences in restaurants with others. Shaw told Modern Restaurant Management that communication is paramount: Your staff should ask each party if there are allergies in the group, and if so, there should be constant communication between the manager, chef and server throughout the preparation, plating and serving of the meal. When guests have questions, direct them to the chef, who should have up-to-date information on allergens and allergen aliases. All employees need to be part of the effort, so have regular training sessions and refreshers on how to manage allergies in various scenarios.
If your restaurant prides itself on its ability to cater to guests with food allergies or other special dietary needs, new opportunities are becoming available to help you connect with those consumers quickly. For example, Fast Casual reports that the food sensor company Nima has developed an online tool that displays gluten-free and peanut-free items available at chain restaurants. Consumers simply visit the site, register their location and the site shows a map of nearby restaurants with allergy-free items. There are now 250,000 restaurant locations contained in the site’s database. At a time when consumers can indulge their cravings with just a couple of clicks, the ability to quickly direct people with allergies to their best options could become a key differentiator for restaurants.
If your restaurant considers how allergic guests avoid exposure to allergens, you may be able to better protect their safety. According to a recent study that surveyed people with allergies who successfully dine out without experiencing reactions, respondents use an average of 15 different strategies to avoid triggering an allergy in restaurants. The study, reported at the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology’s annual conference in November, found that the top five strategies used are speaking to a server upon arrival, ordering food with simple ingredients, double-checking food before eating it, avoiding restaurants with a higher likelihood of cross-contamination and checking meal ingredients on the restaurant’s website. Make sure your team and your website are up to the task.
If you offer food for take-out and delivery, or as convenience items purchased from a kiosk, make sure you are as clear about your ingredients as you would be if you were listing them on the menu in your dining room. Pret A Manger has just begun labeling its foods with allergen information following the 2016 death of a 15-year-old customer with a sesame seed allergy. The customer saw no allergen information on the packaging of a baguette she purchased, or on the display where the sandwich was sold, and she consumed the sandwich without realizing it contained sesame seeds. Researchers from Food Allergy Research & Education estimate that 15 million Americans have food allergies, including one of every 13 children under the age of 18.