Allergen-free meal requests can seem like a hassle for any busy food business. They require special preparation, time and precise communication between front- and back-of-house staff. However, not taking the time to handle these requests properly can have far worse consequences — because nothing disrupts a smooth-running service like a severe allergic reaction happening in your business.
Food allergies are very common in Australia; in fact, Australia has one of the highest rates of documented food allergy and anaphylaxis hospital admissions in the developed world. According to the NSW Food Authority, food allergies now affect 1 in 10 infants and about 2 in 100 adults in Australia.
Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur within seconds of exposure. If not treated right away, it can be fatal. In all cases, anaphylaxis has a devastating effect on the individual's physical and mental well-being. It can also cause distress for other customers who witness the incident, and for your employees.
Food businesses and employees are responsible for serving customers a safe meal — this includes customers who suffer with food allergies. To protect your customers and your business from the consequences of a severe allergic reaction, follow these five simple rules:
1. Identify the most common food allergens
The following foods cause 90 percent of allergic reactions in Australia:
- Tree nuts
- Sesame seeds
While the above list are the most common allergens, any food can be an allergen, so it's important to take requests seriously every time.
2. Know what goes into the food you prepare and sell
It's very important that you and your employees know what ingredients go into your food; including the ingredients of ingredients. For example, if a soup uses a bouillon cube as part of its base, staff must be aware of exactly what's in the cube. In your commercial kitchen, be sure to do the following:
- Check food labels/ingredient lists for all products used in the business, especially those manufactured off-site
- Check food labels for allergens listed by other names (e.g. “casein” instead of milk, “tempeh” instead of soy)
- Only use labelled ingredients and products
- Check with suppliers when products are reformulated or changed to verify new recipes won't introduce an allergen
Not all employees need to check food labels — but all employees should know what goes into the foods that your business prepares and sells.
3. Communicate effectively with customers
When asked if a food item or dish contains an allergen, Food Handlers must respond accurately and honestly. It is vital that Food Handlers know what to do if they don't know the answer. Food Handlers must never ever guess and hope for the best.
To ensure your Food Handlers (both back- and front-of-house) can answer questions about allergens confidently, make sure they:
- have access to ingredient information (written documents if possible)
- feel comfortable asking management and other staff members about the products they offer
- have been instructed to inform customers if they cannot guarantee an allergen- or intolerance-free meal
- have been trained to inform all kitchen and service staff when an allergen-free meal is being prepared
- feel comfortable consulting the customer on how best to manage their allergy
Consider listing information about known allergens in an obvious place for customers to see, such as a menu, chalkboard, information package or on your website. If this information is not provided up front, let your customers know where they can get it.
4. Prevent cross-contamination
You would be surprised by how easy it is for traces of an allergen to get onto a customer's plate; even trace amounts can cause a life-threatening reaction. To prevent cross-contamination in your food business, follow these tips:
- Always document and verbally alert kitchen and waitstaff when a customer has ordered an allergen-free meal
- Keep a designated allergen-free meal preparation area set aside; clean and sanitise the area after each use to remove allergen residues
- Only use clean and sanitised utensils when storing, preparing or serving an allergen-free meal
- Clean and sanitise surfaces, equipment and utensils between uses
- Avoid reusing equipment for different ingredients (for example, don't reuse a cutting board that was used to chop peanuts to prepare vegetables for a salad)
- Don't substitute one ingredient for another (for example, don't use sesame seeds instead of poppy seeds, as the customer who chose the meal may have a sesame allergy that they did not disclose)
- When preparing an allergen-free meal, make it fresh and prepare it first
- Don't hesitate to consult with the customer about suitable preparation methods (for example, ask if laying foil across the grill before cooking a steak is a good solution)
5. Prepare an allergen management plan
Policies and procedures for managing allergy risks should be incorporated into your business's Food Safety Program. Start by identifying where and how cross-contamination could occur at each step of your food and beverage preparation processes, then determine what can and must be done to prevent cross-contamination risk at each step.
Remember that the kitchen isn’t the only place you need to look for food allergens. For example:
- Coffee stations or specialty coffee preparation areas may contain soy, cow and almond milk (all common allergens)
- Allergens such as milk and eggs are commonly used ingredients in specialty cocktails (e.g. white russian, whisky sour)
When developing your allergen management plan, ask yourself these questions:
- Have front- and back-of-house employees been adequately trained on how to manage and communicate about allergens?
- Do all employees understand their responsibility to protect customers from allergic reactions?
- Do employees know how to recognise the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction?
- Do employees know what to do/who to alert in the event of an emergency?
The best and easiest way to avoid food safety hazards and the consequences of food safety incidents is through training and ongoing education. Knowledgeable and skilled Food Handlers can mean the difference between a thriving business and closed doors.
The AIFS Food Allergen Management course teaches Australian food workers how to manage allergens and handle allergen-related risks, including life-threatening anaphylaxis. For more information, visit our Food Allergen Management course page. Be sure to also check out our Allergen Management Guide for Food Safety Supervisors, or this helpful guide if you are in the process of starting a food business in Australia.