Dale J. Venturini
President/CEO, RI Hospitality Association
My friend is allergic to butter. She recently went out to dinner and customarily informed her server about her allergy, to which she was asked, “Do you just not like butter, or are you actually allergic?” Apparently, my friend’s very-real allergy offended the chef who went on to prepare her dish with a ‘bit’ of butter because, “the dish wouldn’t taste good without it.” As a result, my friend got up from the table and left.
Nearly 15,000,000 Americans are afflicted with a food allergy. Allergic reactions to food account for approximately 30,000 emergency room visits and 150 to 200 deaths a year, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To put it simply, food-related allergies are on the rise. Although there is always the possibility of a patron claiming a food-related allergy due to dietary restrictions, each and every situation needs to be treated legitimately in order to prevent unnecessary backlash toward the foodservice operator.
According to FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), more than 170 foods are known to cause allergic reactions with eight major food allergens being responsible for the majority of serious food-related allergic reactions in the United States; they are: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish (but, sesame may soon be added to the list, too). In March, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) developed and hosted a Nutrition Executive Study Group (NESG) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida to discuss allergens and best practices for restaurants to communicate with their guests about them.
At the NESG, nutritionists from approximately 40 foodservice companies gave compelling presentations and held interactive group discussions covering topics ranging from tips on how to properly label menus to different methods for communicating allergen information to consumers. Food manufacturers are required to identify food items that contain major allergens on any and all packaging, but by federal law, restaurants are not. However, some states are requiring restaurants to disclose this information in the best interest of the consumer. Some best practices to communicate nutrition and allergen information to customers include sharing company allergen policies online and via social media and by creating individualized “specialty menus” designed to meet customers’ dietary restrictions, among others. And, according to the NRA, many foodservice providers are now turning to nutrition and allergen specialists to help them identify and enact best practices at their businesses.
Restaurants and other foodservice purveyors are encouraged to motivate their staff to take allergen training, a service which is now being offered by the NRA via its ServSafe Allergens Certificate Program. The program helps to educate participants regarding the proper procedures and techniques that are imperative to successfully serve consumers with food allergies. Those who take the course will learn everything from how to spot symptoms of an allergic reaction; the major food allergens; how to prevent cross-contact; how and when to communicate to guests and staff about allergens; how to handle food deliveries in relation to allergens; and proper food preparation for guests with food allergies.
We don’t want to see any businesses’ reputation suffer because their staff is inadequately educated food allergens and dietary restrictions. We advise every local foodservice operator to utilize the training services provided by RIHA and the NRA. Every foodservice operator wants to ensure their customers’ utmost satisfaction, and in order to do that, they must invest in promoting best practices in the workplace while encouraging their employees to take food safety procedures seriously. The consumer’s health concerns or dietary restrictions must not be questioned – there are more than enough resources to ensure that your staff understands the repercussions of treating food allergens nonchalantly.