You may have separate preparation areas and tools for foods containing allergens, a staff that can name the big eight allergens that trigger the most problems for people, and clear warnings on your menu encouraging guests to alert staff about allergens. But you can still slip up with an allergic guest if communication from the guest to the server to the kitchen and back isn’t clear. In fact, this triggered a severe allergy for a 12-year-old boy in Massachusetts several years ago. Due to a misunderstanding by restaurant staff, the boy was served a pastry filled with peanut butter despite having told the server of his peanut allergy. The boy’s mother had an EpiPen on hand – otherwise the allergy could have been fatal. Now, the family is working to advance legislation that would update food allergy training materials and require restaurants in the state to always be staffed with someone who has used the updated materials. What safety mechanisms do you have in place – tech-based or not – to make sure your staff communicates clearly with guests and each other about allergies?
Gluten can be a tricky allergen. Even products labeled as gluten-free, as well as seemingly safe products like meat, may contain trace amounts of the protein. About 7 percent of the U.S. population are either gluten-sensitive or have celiac disease (and rates of celiac disease are rising by 7.5 percent annually). These people may experience abdominal pain, chronic fatigue or diarrhea when they eat gluten. There is gluten-sensing technology in development that aims to make it easier to detect trace amounts of gluten in foods, but in the meantime, restaurants’ efforts to accommodate gluten-sensitive guests can go far in earning their loyalty. A recent report from Food Management advises you have a checklist of regularly ordered foods and identify gluten-free items on the list, establish with vendors that you are committed to having gluten-free substitutes available, have a clear system to identify gluten-free items on your menu, and consider having your business validated by the Gluten-Free Food Service, which supports organizations looking to implement gluten-free safety procedures for the long term.
Consumers with food allergies are a growing – and potentially loyal – group of guests. But as a recent QSR Magazine report indicates, a large percentage of restaurant staff aren’t equipped to identify and serve allergens safely. As this study found, more than 70 percent of restaurant staff believe the food they serve is safe but less than half of these employees had received allergen-specific training. At a time when the FDA’s list of major allergens continues to expand with the addition of sesame this year, are your staff aware of new labeling requirements and how to handle allergens safely?
Cold winter nights are just right for restaurant delivery. How confident are you in the food safety commitment of those bringing food to your guests? Whether they are third-party vendors or your own staff, their approach to transporting food can impact everything from the temperature at which an order is received, to whether the food of an allergic guest is safely kept separate from other items. Any new packaging you have introduced in recent months can call for additional adjustments in how orders are handled. What mechanisms do you have in place to assess your delivery safety risks so you can make adjustments as needed?
In 2023, the FDA began recognizing sesame as an official allergen, triggering a response in some restaurants that has surprised some consumers. As a recent report from Fast Company indicates, sesame seeds are so prone to cross-contamination due to their small size that it’s challenging for restaurants and food producers alike to guarantee their absence from foods. So instead, sesame is being added to recipes where, in many cases, it wasn’t present before, in order to provide greater clarity to consumers about the presence of the allergen. This leaves allergic guests – who can be especially loyal to restaurants that support them – with fewer options and at potentially greater risk for consuming a cross-contaminated food. If you’re looking for ways to abide by the new rules while offering options to allergic guests, the group Food Allergy Research & Education may be of help.
Beginning this month, sesame legally became the ninth major food allergen that requires clear labeling if it is an ingredient in a food product. According to Food Safety Magazine, cross-contamination and mislabeling of food have caused allergens to be the most frequent reason for food recalls each year. It’s a good time to give your team a refresher on overall allergen awareness and the steps needed to document training and prevent cross-contamination in your operation.
Beyond the dangers food allergies can cause to health and safety, allergic reactions can deliver unwanted publicity to restaurants – and that has been happening with greater frequency as food allergies have become more prevalent. According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team, the number of people with a food allergy in America has doubled in each of the last decades. Having systems to get accurate, up-to-date allergy information to your guests when they need it is more important than ever – and it can earn you a loyal following of guests who trust your brand with their health. Consider leveraging tabletop technology to provide detailed information about your menu. The full nutritional information of a dish can be accessible via a tablet and updated electronically and automatically across your locations. Receiving this information directly from the restaurant can also minimize the stress a guest may feel when a server has to check with the chef about allergy information and then relay the message back.
Sesame is the ninth major allergen in the U.S. – and it’s everywhere. Menu items as varied as breads, hummus and stir fries may all contain it. But what makes sesame challenging to manage in a restaurant kitchen is that there are more than a dozen food names that imply they contain it. Benne, halvah and tahini are just a few of them, and sesame is often hiding in the spice blends or “natural flavors” mentioned on ingredient labels, according to the National Restaurant Association. As you plan menus and dish variations, be alert to the aliases of the ingredients you’re using – particularly those known to trigger serious food allergies.
Human error generates great expense in the restaurant industry. A recent report from FoodDocs indicates that on average, human error costs the service industry around $30 per order. One widespread mistake is incorrect order taking, which can trigger anything from a negative review to a severe allergy. It’s also preventable if you reinforce some manual and tech-driven checks. Advise staff to confirm verbal orders when they are placed (and also when they are served). If you’re using a tech-based system to take orders, make sure the final screen lists the items clearly, along with any substitutions.
For consumers with food allergies, eating out can be a minefield. But restaurants that earn the trust of these guests stand to win customers for life. To send the clear message that you take food allergies and sensitivities seriously, get out in front with your messaging. Online, ensure your website includes ingredient lists and identifies common allergens – that information can easily help an allergic guest decide in advance to eat with you. In your restaurant, post a QR code that guests can scan for allergen-specific information – and ensure it’s in plain sight on menus and in the locations where guests place orders.