Food Allergies: Why it’s important for restaurants to pay attention

Food allergies are common and it is important for restaurants and other food service industries to be aware of the importance of allergens and the associated problems.

According to more than 15 million people or one in 25 people have a food allergy, which is roughly 4 percent of the population. One in thirteen kids has a food allergy, which equates to an average of two kids per typical school classroom. About 40 percent of kids who have had a reaction have had a severe reaction. There are about 150-200 deaths per year from a food allergy, and half of these occur in a food service operation. 

It is true that sensitivities do vary; some people are able to consume food that has been in contact with the allergen (the protein in food that they are allergic to), and some people are highly sensitive and must be extremely careful to avoid any food that may have even just been processed in the same facility as the allergen.  

Symptoms of a food allergy may vary from mild, such as hives, or nausea, to severe such as breathing problems, and even death. Every three minutes someone goes to the emergency room because of an allergic reaction. Because you cannot predict how severe someone reacts, it is important to treat all food allergies the same. 

There are 160 identified foods that cause allergic reactions, but 90 percent of allergens are from eight foods referred to as “The Big Eight”: milk, eggs, soy, fish, tree nuts, peanuts, crustacean shellfish and wheat. Widespread problems with these foods led to mandatory labeling on the packaging of food to identify foods made with these ingredients, including if they may have only come into contact with these ingredients during processing.

Food service businesses such as restaurants must be aware of how to handle people with food allergies. Cross-contact can happen when one food comes into contact with another and the proteins mix. It could be direct (using the same spoon to mix hamburger that was just used to scoop out peanut butter for example), or indirect (using the same oil to fry French fries that you used to fry shrimp). 

There is no cure for food allergies, the only effective method is to avoid food allergens. When making food for someone with a food allergy, be aware of ingredients that contain the offending allergy – read labels if you are not sure, be sure to use sanitized equipment, utensils and plates when preparing the food, and take the food out on a plate that is clearly identified and take it directly to the customer with the allergy.

ServSafe®, a food safety training program for food service managers now offers ServSafe Allergen® training. Michigan State University Extension is also a great resource for food safety questions and offers ServSafe Manager training throughout Michigan. 

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