Cow’s milk, eggs, gluten, peanuts, soy, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts – how many of these seemingly innocent foods does your food business offer, and how many customers are you losing because you’re not accommodating food allergy needs?
According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), Australia has one of the highest food allergy rates in the world, and each year, the rate increases worldwide. When people with food allergies eat away from home, they rely on food businesses to provide them with a safe dining experience, including accurate information about dish ingredients so that they can make informed decisions about what to order. Incorrect or incomplete information puts these individuals’ health – and even their lives – at risk.
So how can you prevent your establishment from inadvertently harming or alienating customers affected by food allergies? This guide will explain how to manage allergy risks and protect customers who need to avoid certain ingredients. It includes advice and information on top food allergens, food allergies vs. food intolerances, signs and symptoms of allergic reactions, understanding allergen labelling, how to prevent allergen incidents, and what to do if one should arise. This guide also includes ideas to incorporate into your business’ Food Safety Plan.
Understand Your Enemy
The first step to a solid allergen management plan is to become familiar with the top food allergens. There are ten foods which account for approximately 90% of food allergies in Australia. They are:
- Tree nuts
- Sesame seeds
Food workers should be familiar with each of these foods, and understand how they may be listed on food labels.
What is the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy?
A common mistake food businesses make is to confuse an allergy with an intolerance.
Food allergies occur when the immune system reacts to a foreign substance – usually a protein that is eaten, breathed or touched – as if it were harmful. Frighteningly, people with food allergies can actually go into a life-threatening condition called anaphylactic shock if they consume even a tiny amount of the allergenic substance.
Unlike a food allergy, a food intolerance does not involve the immune system. Instead, it typically involves the digestive system, and the body simply lacks the proper mechanism or enzyme needed to digest a particular food.
Food allergies and food intolerances can have similar symptoms, but they are very different conditions. While the symptoms of a food intolerance or sensitivity may cause extreme discomfort, they are generally not life-threatening. Regardless, both allergies and intolerances should be taken seriously by cooks, servers and other Food Handlers responsible for preparing and serving food safely.
What are the signs that someone is having an allergic reaction?
When a person eats a food he or she is allergic to, the reaction may travel swiftly through the body, causing physical symptoms such as:
- Swelling of the lips, tongue and throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Abdominal cramps
What are the signs that someone is suffering from anaphylactic shock?
During anaphylaxis, the airways will begin to swell and tighten, making it nearly impossible to breathe. Other key symptoms include:
- Severe anxiety
- Gastrointestinal upset including diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and vomiting
- Facial swelling
- Heart palpitations
- Chest tightening
Build Allergy Management into Your Food Safety Plan
The best way to minimise risks for your customers is to build allergen management and prevention of allergy risks into your Food Safety Plan. This could involve creating a written plan for handling customers with food allergies that all staff members must follow.
When creating your plan, consider the following questions:
- Who will answer customers’ questions regarding menu items?
- Who will check the ingredients used in menu items and note any that contain common allergens?
- How will ingredient information be communicated to the appropriate staff?
- What steps should food handling staff follow to avoid cross-contamination?
- How should staff members handle an allergic reaction if it occurs on the premises?
Cooperation and teamwork are key to safely serving a customer who has food allergies. All staff – including managers, the Food Safety Supervisor, customer service staff, and food handling staff – must become familiar with the issues surrounding food allergies, and the proper way to answer customers’ questions.
As a Food Safety Supervisor, you’re responsible for becoming familiar with food allergies and menu-item ingredients. When faced with a question from a customer, the Food Safety Supervisor (along with any staff assisting that customer) should be able to point out all menu items that contain the specific allergen so the customer is aware. Then the Food Safety Supervisor should personally tell staff preparing the customer’s food about the allergy, so that they can take steps to avoid cross-contamination with the allergen.
Another recommendation is to display signs in-store that indicate which foods contain common allergens.
The Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code states food businesses must advise customers of the presence of eight allergens in food, either on the food package or upon request by the customer. These are:
- Cereals and products containing gluten, namely wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, and Kamut, and their hybrid strains.
- Crustaceans such as crabs, lobster, shellfish, and their products.
- Egg and egg products.
- Fish and fish products.
- Milk and milk products.
- Nuts, such as tree nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia nuts, sesame nuts, and their products.
- Soybeans and their products.
- Added sulphites at levels of 10mg/kg or more.
Educate Your Staff
As the Food Safety Supervisor, you or your establishment’s training manager should train your staff to deal with a request from a customer regarding a food allergen. When a customer mentions a particular food allergy and asks whether a dish contains that ingredient, the server should be able to locate food labels and ingredient information, and if they are unsure of the answer, be trained to say, “I don’t know, but let me ask the Food Safety Supervisor.”
Many allergens can go by different names on food ingredient labels, so it’s extremely important to train staff on the alternate names for each allergen. Here are a few examples:
- Soy can be listed as bean curd, tofu, dofu, kori-dofu, tempeh, tamari or textured vegetable protein
- Egg can be listed as albumin/albumen, apovitellin, livetin, lysozyme, ovoglobulin, ovolactohydrolyse proteins or vitellin
- Sesame can be listed as benne, benniseed, gingelly, gingelly oil, tahini, sesamol, sim sim or til
Additionally, some foods that may seem like they wouldn't be at risk of containing allergens, in fact, can be. This really underscores the importance of training staff to thoroughly read labels, and not make assumptions about an item’s contents. For examples of hidden allergens in food items, visit these blogs on surprising foods that contain dairy and hidden sources of eggs.
Food businesses often don’t realise that allergy contamination can’t be easily undone. For example, removing a slice of cheese from a burger will not make it safe to eat for someone with a dairy allergy. Staff who handle or prepare food must prepare food for an allergic customer separately from other meals, with different knives, trays and plates, so that the customer’s food doesn’t come in contact with any other food that will trigger a reaction.
Start a Dialogue
Make it a habit to ask your customer if they have any special dietary requirements, so that you’re always covered. Most customers will happily volunteer this information when browsing.
Another strategy is to feature a message at the bottom of your menu, saying, “If you have a food allergy, please let us know.” But always make a point of asking, because if a customer feels that their needs are well looked after, they will return again and again.
Keep it Going
It’s important to remember that effective allergen management is an ongoing exercise. It doesn’t stop once everyone has had a round of training, or once you’ve established your Food Safety Plan. To ensure effective and ongoing allergen management in your food business, follow these best practices:
- Communicate with suppliers
- Understand proper storage protocols
- Know ingredients and recipes
- Use dedicated areas
- Communicate changes to staff and customers
- Ensure training is always up to date
In Australia, the Food Standards Code requires anyone who works with food to be trained in food safety. Allergen management is an important component of a thorough food safety training program. The AIFS Food Allergen Management Course provides a thorough understanding of food allergen management so you and all food staff are educated and prepared to keep customers safe in your food business.
For more resources on Allergen Management in your food business, visit our Member Resources section, which includes fact sheets, allergen checklists, handwashing guides and much more. Not a member yet? AIFS Membership is included at no charge when you sign up for many of our courses, or you can purchase a membership on its own. Contact us today for more information and to find out how AIFS can help ensure your staff is properly trained in food safety.