Rise in restaurant food allergy protocols | Modern restaurant management

Max McGlinchey, a 19-year-old student with a peanut allergy, died over the summer after eating at a Chinese restaurant in Lancaster, Pa. As always, Max was careful to ask about the ingredients of the meal he was ordering – Lo Mein beef and an egg roll – to make sure the food was peanut free. Apparently there was a mistake in the kitchen, because someone cooked their food in peanut oil or there was accidental contact with peanuts, and Max died from a severe allergic reaction. .

Celia Marsh died of anaphylaxis after eating at UK sandwich chain Pret a Manger. The 42-year-old mother suffered a severe allergic reaction after eating a sandwich that contained yogurt that was supposedly dairy-free but actually contained traces of milk protein. A few months earlier, a 15-year-old girl, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, had gone to another Pret a Manger store, where she had eaten a mislabelled baguette. The bread she ate contained sesame but was not labeled as such. Natasha, who was allergic to sesame, had a severe allergic reaction and died.

Making mistakes when preparing food for allergic guests can (literally) kill them. It is imperative that every employee in every restaurant takes food allergies seriously and works tirelessly to avoid these mistakes. All staff should be familiar with your restaurant’s food allergy protocols and be properly trained to accommodate customers with particular dietary restrictions. Emphasize to your staff that if a guest with a food allergy ingests even a tiny amount of their food allergen, it can trigger a reaction – and in severe cases, even death.

Food allergies are more and more prevalent in our society. According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), it is estimated that today, approximately 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies. The “Big 8” foods – responsible for 90 percent of all allergic reactions – are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans, wheat, fish and shellfish. Sesame has become such a prevalent allergen that we may soon be discussing the ‘Big 9’, as manufacturers may soon be labeling this ingredient for the presence as well. Although these allergens are the most common, people can also have serious allergic reactions to a wide variety of other foods and spices.

It’s easy to see how a mistake can happen when you serve hundreds of guests on any given night. But it’s also essential to avoid mistakes, by consistently using proper food allergy protocols, with each allergic guest.

While the first priority is obviously to keep customers safe, it’s also important to recognize that food allergy-related mistakes can devastate a business. One mistake can be extremely costly (legal fees, drop in business) and can ruin a restaurant’s reputation (just look at the negative press that Pret a Manager has bypassed for its multiple food allergy mistakes).

Becoming antiallergic is good for restaurant results. Consumers with food allergies are extremely loyal to restaurants that can accommodate them. The food allergy community is vocal and tight-knit, sharing information about amazing experiences with accommodating restaurants so others can visit (and enjoy) these establishments. The reverse is also true: If restaurants aren’t accommodating or don’t know about food allergies, allergic customers share those negative experiences so others can avoid them. Here are some tips to make your restaurant more allergy-friendly.

Communicate with guests and staff

Communication is essential – from the moment the customer walks through the door until they receive their meal. Always ask if there are any food allergies in each group and, if so, communicate this information to the manager and chef. Kitchen staff should be in constant communication with each other throughout the process of cooking, dressing and serving the allergy-free meal.

Avoid cross contact

Cross contact occurs when proteins from foods containing an allergen are transferred to foods that do not contain that allergen, such as chopping peanuts on a board and then chopping salad leaves on the same board. A guest with a peanut allergy might have a reaction by eating the green vegetables that came into contact with the peanuts during preparation. The difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination is that anyone can get sick from cross-contamination if they eat food that has touched raw meat or poultry. Cross-contact is only dangerous for customers with food allergies, who may inadvertently ingest their allergens if proper care has not been taken in food preparation.

Allergy-friendly workspace

Create a separate allergy-free workspace in your kitchen. Use this space to prepare allergen-free / gluten-free meals.

Know your ingredients

Know every ingredient used in every component of every meal on the menu. Check the ingredients when serving a guest with a food allergy.

Color code

Color coded food allergy equipment and tools. This reduces the risk of cross contact. Purple is the universal color for allergen-free kitchenware. Keep these tools clean, covered, and stored away from flour, nuts, and other common allergens. Plus, serve allergen-free / gluten-free meals in differently shaped or colored plates so they can be easily identified by waiters and guests.

Have information at your fingertips

Make sure you provide correct information. When customers with food allergies have questions, these should be directed to the responsible person or chef so that the question can be answered accurately. Servers should never guess at the ingredients of a dish or how a meal is prepared.

Use separate equipment

Use separate equipment for guests with food allergies. For example, don’t use the same deep fryer (or oil) for French fries that you use for breaded products, fish, or foods that contain nuts.

Understanding allergies

Be aware of multiple and complex allergies. Your team may have mastered cooking and serving a dairy-free or gluten-free meal, but they should also be able to expertly deal with multiple and unusual allergies.

Staff training

Educate all your staff on allergen “aliases”. For example, whey and casein are dairy products, and semolina contains gluten.

To modify

Be prepared to vary dishes for guests with food allergies, using different sauces, sides, or other ingredients to meet their particular dietary restrictions.


Train your team on food allergy protocols. There are many online courses, webinars, videos, and live courses that can help you in this endeavor. Every employee should be trained on food allergy protocols and reminded to take food allergies seriously. Offer regular “refresher training” to keep this information at the top of the list.

It is essential that everyone on your team know how to deal with food allergies and intolerances. Emphasize the importance of accommodating diners with food allergies, even during a dinner rush. Consumers with food allergies seek out establishments where they can dine without worry, with many driving an hour or more to eat safely. These antiallergic establishments will gain brand loyalty and, therefore, increase profitability.

About Vivian J. Smith

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