Shellfish, peanuts, eggs, soy, milk, fish, wheat, tree nuts—all ordinary foods we often see in one form or another at the dining table or in a food establishment. But these common foods have extraordinarily uncommon consequences when eaten by people who have a particular vulnerability to them. In some individuals in fact, the food need not even be ingested to threaten health or even life—something made very clear recently to Adams Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona. The school was the subject of a complaint filed with the Department of Education by the mother of a fourth-grader whom she had to remove from the school because of repeated exposures to peanut residue. The boy was so allergic to peanuts that even exposure to its residue caused trips to the hospital.
Like the boy, there are an estimated 15 million other Americans who are allergic to one or more of the eight most common food allergens mentioned above, threatening their health and in thousands of cases, even their survival (where the allergic reaction is severe, the affected individual could go into a fatal anaphylactic shock).
What can be done? Fortunately, allergic reactions to certain foods can easily be prevented. Organizations such as FARE, an ongoing collaboration between Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and Food Allergy Initiative, have launched awareness campaigns to help the public, organizations, and food establishments to recognize the dangers of food allergens and to know how to deal with them. FARE, specifically, works with the healthcare, education, and restaurant sectors to educate their members on food-allergy awareness.
Below are some of the most important to-dos that FARE recommends on educating restaurant staff about food allergies:
Educate. This may sound like a motherhood statement, but of all the to-dos, this is the most essential. FARE has prepared a freely downloadable PDF guide (www.foodallergy.org/downloads/welcomingguests.pdf), “Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies,” to educating restaurant staff in preparing and serving diners who are allergic to certain foods. It’s the restaurant owner’s food-allergy and food-serving bible. It’s conveniently available in English and Spanish versions.
In addition, FARE offers on its website (www.foodallergy.org) online pointers, as well as useful posters, related to food allergies.
Train the food-preparation staff. This is actually a subset of the first to-do, but it deserves emphasizing. The role that each of the kitchen staff plays in preventing vulnerable customers from being exposed to food allergens is obviously crucial. A prep cook who lacks food-allergy training, for instance, would probably exclude a shrimp ingredient from a menu item for someone who’s allergic to seafood, but might use a ladle, knife or plate that previously came in contact with shrimp.
Inform staff of the food-allergy go-to person. The staff should be instructed on who the designated resource person is on each shift. This food-allergy “expert“ (usually the manager), says FARE, should be familiar not just with the menu-item ingredients but also with food allergens, and should be able to manage questions and requests from customers with food allergies. Among the primary duties of the go-to person is personally informing the kitchen staff of any order-related request from a customer with a food allergy so the food preparers can take care not to expose the customer’s order to the specific food allergens.
Orient staff on restaurant’s special-order plan. When a guest informs the server that he (or she) is allergic to certain food ingredients, the staff should know that they should immediately put into action the restaurant’s special-order plan for people with food allergies. This might include providing the customer with the list of ingredients the restaurant uses for the menu item ordered, or if the order is not prepared at the restaurant, informing him that the ingredient list is unavailable.