Allergens: Are you putting your business at risk?

Part 1 of a 3 part series

Do you have an allergen safety program?

If not your are putting your consumers and your business at risk.  In this three part series we will discuss what allergens are, what restaurants  are required to do and what good practices should be followed by all staff members and help you create an allergen safety plan for your facility.

During my food safety training classes we discuss the topic of allergens. Often I hear stories from food handlers who just didn’t believe the customer was really allergic to the food.  They believed that the customer was just saying they were allergic to get special foods prepared for them. This is a BAD and DANGEROUS attitude to have in the culinary world. Food handlers need to take every order presented to them as if the customer has the most serious off allergies. 

What is a food allergy?

An allergic reaction occurs when your bodies immune system negatively reacts to the proteins in certain foods. A  food allergy can be very dangerous. There are also some individuals that also have food sensitivity or food intolerance. Although they can be disruptive and cause mild symptoms they are not nearly as dangerous. 

A typical allergic reaction can cause symptoms ranging from upset stomach and mild rash to swelling, difficulty breathing and in some cases possibly death. Restaurant staff need to take customers seriously when they state they have an allergy and know what to do to protect the customer.

The FDA identified 8 foods that cause 90% of reactions in humans, they are as follows:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans
  • Fish
  • Crustacean Shellfish including crab, shrimp & lobster 1
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts 2

When someone enters your restaurant and states they are allergic to an ingredient on the list of eight the staff should be trained to get the go-to-person.  But what happens when someone states they are allergic to something not on the list of eight? Be honest! Now is not time for guessing. Unless you have access to all the ingredients and ingredient labels in all the sub-ingredients used to make the product, know all the processes and procedures for that product  you must state that you just don’t know and offer another option.

What about the chefs secret and very special sauce and the chef is off today? There are no secrets when it comes to food allergies. You don’t need to disclose the entire ingredient list but at minimum allergens must be disclosed to “go-to-person”.

Understanding what causes the allergic reaction is just the start. Your facility should have a plan in place for how to handle allergens. Imagine your busiest time and staff is maxed out and moving at a speed most people don’t even understand. Now a question is thrown at the cook about a particular dish. Is he/she really able to process the question and give a safe answer? NO. In the reverse can the average waitstaff handle questions? Are they knowledgeable about ingredients used in sauces, marinades or binders? NO. Having a plan already in place should be a priority for every facility. In tomorrows installment of this series we will discuss what a restaurant is required to do, explain the go-to-persons responsibilities and understand cross contamination that could occur.

If you have any questions about this topic please feel free to ask question on our facebook page,  https://www.facebook.com/MarylandFoodHandler

1 – this does NOT include Molluscan Shellfish like oysters, clams and scallops

2 – Common or usual name of treenuts; Almond, Beech nut,Brazil nut, Butternut, Cashew, Chestnut, Chinquapin, Coconut, Filbert/hazelnut , Ginko nut, Hickory nut, Lichee nut, Macadamia nut/Bush nut, Pecan, Pine nut/Pinon nut, Pistachio and Walnut ( English, Persian, Black, Japanese, California), Heartnut Butternut 

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