By Staff Member: Laura Lerch, RS
Environmental Health Specialist, Wake County Environmental Services

About 12 million Americans live with a food allergy, roughly four percent of the population. According to the Food Allergen and Anaphylaxis Network, nearly half of fatal food allergic reactions are caused by food from restaurants and food service facilities.
Interesting Facts:
  • Teens are most likely to die from a fatal food allergic reaction.
  • Food allergic reactions are responsible for 30,000 emergency room visits and 150-200 deaths per year nationwide.
  • There is no cure for food allergies; avoidance is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction.
  • The eight common food allergens are eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.
Food allergens can be a liability to any restaurant. That is why understanding food allergies and properly training staff can help reduce your liability. With that said, accommodating and welcoming guests with a food allergy can seem overwhelming but is an attainable goal.
A food allergy is an immune system response to a protein in a specific food that the body believes is harmful. Common symptoms include swelling of the lips, tongue and throat, hives, difficulty breathing, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea.
Front of House Staff
Hosts and hostesses should only seat customers at tables where both the table and the chairs have been cleaned. This is to prevent any cross-contamination from the food served to other customers. If a customer notifies the host or hostess about a food allergy, make every effort to seat this customer away from the kitchen, where splattering food or steam from cooking may cause an allergic reaction.
Wait Staff
Wait staff should be aware of the basic food allergens and know the ingredients in menu items. The customer should notify the server about their food allergy, but it is a good idea to have signage in the restaurant or on the menu asking allergy-prone customers to inform restaurant staff about their food allergy. Once a customer has alerted staff about a food allergy, the server should be able to answer questions about ingredients or tell the customer they do not know about a certain dish and then consult with the manager. Staff and customers should never assume a dish is allergen-free. Servers should identify on the ticket that the customer has a food allergy. Bold red lettering is one technique.
It is recommended to have one identified staff member who serves as the go-to person regarding food allergy questions. This is often the manager. The manager should know appropriate menu items to recommend to customers with allergies. Check with food suppliers on a regular basis to ensure no ingredients have been changed or substituted. Read the labels on food products for common allergens and know which menu items are made from these products. The manager should recommend the customer avoid items that are considered high risk including fried foods, desserts, sauces, pastry-covered dishes, combination foods, and items from a buffet or salad bar. Make reading the menu easy for customers with food allergies by naming the common food allergen as part of the menu item name (e.g., strawberry walnut vinaigrette). The manager should discuss the food allergy with the cook to ensure procedures are followed in the kitchen to prevent cross-contamination of the food. The plate for the person with the allergy should be served separately to ensure no contamination of the prepared food occurs.
Cooks and Kitchen Staff
Cooks and kitchen staff also need to be aware and trained on how to handle customers with food allergies. Do not make casual substitutions on recipes. A customer with the allergy may become accustomed to ordering that food and not be aware of the change. Areas where cross-contamination with food allergens are most likely to occur include fryers (oils being used for more than one product), woks, common grills and cutting boards. Prevent cross-contamination by cleaning and sanitizing work surfaces, utensils and equipment. Clean up splashes and spills quickly, wash hands and change gloves frequently and when soiled or after handling one of the eight food allergens. Another useful strategy is to store allergen-containing foods away from “safe” foods. When staff is unsure if the food has been prepared in a manner to maintain safety for the customer, discard the food and start over.
If you believe a customer is suffering from an allergic reaction or the customer tells you they are experiencing an allergic reaction, DO NOT argue or try and defend the restaurant – call 911 immediately.
For more information check out the Food Allergy Research and Education website