The "Big 8" food allergens—dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and wheat—receive a lot of attention from foodservice providers because they’re the most common, but over 10 percent of the food-allergic population has allergies to other foods. There are more than 250 foods that people can be allergic to, including garlic, beef and other meats, onion, yeast, apples, strawberries and other fruits, and even items like sugar, salt, artificial colors or preservatives, cinnamon and other spices and caffeine.
As with the Big 8, ingestion of these “other” allergens by those afflicted can result in severe reactions, including potentially life-threatening anaphylaxis—something foodservice professionals must be aware of.
In addition to the large variety of food allergens, a significant number of people have multiple food allergies—roughly 50 percent of the food-allergic population. My family is a perfect example of both these trends. One of my three food-allergic children has four food allergies, including sesame (which is not one of the Big 8). This makes it a little more challenging for us (and millions in our food allergy community) to dine out as we need to find establishments that are willing and able to accommodate my kids’ multiple allergies. But we do so frequently and are very loyal to those venues that serve us safely.
Many foodservice establishments are adding allergen books, indicating which of their menu items contain the Big 8 allergens. This is a good start, but I would suggest taking your efforts a few steps further. Your entire staff must be aware that some guests will have allergies to less common, and often multiple, foods. This isn’t a trend that’s going to end, and all food allergies can be severe and even life-threatening, so your team must take them seriously.
To properly accommodate people with less common and/or multiple food allergies:
• Train your staff about food allergies. Raise awareness about food allergies in general and ensure your staff knows your food allergy protocols and procedures. Your team should be able to expertly accommodate common allergens, like eggs or dairy, as well as less common ones, like mushrooms or beef. Teach your entire staff how to communicate with guests about their allergens, visually indicate special orders for food-allergic guests, avoid cross-contamination, double check ingredient lists, etc.
• Emphasize to employees that food allergies are broader than just the Big 8. Don’t train your staff on the Big 8 allergens alone—train them on food allergies in general. If you can accommodate the Big 8, you’re well on your way to accommodating less common allergens as well. Remind your employees that less common allergies can be just as serious as the Big 8—even life-threatening—so use proper protocols with every food-allergic guest.
• Have an ingredient binder with more than just the Big 8 allergens. List every ingredient in every component of every food you serve or simply save packaging labels. It’s not enough to know which foods contain egg, dairy, peanuts and other common allergens. You must be able to identify every ingredient in each of your meals, including sides, sauces, breadings and marinades. It’s important to have the information in writing, in a binder or spreadsheet, which staff and guests can easily refer to. Don’t rely on team members’ memories. It can be hard to accurately remember every ingredient, especially during busy times when staff is harried.
• Learn to be creative with ingredient substitutions. If someone has a wheat allergy and orders a pizza, you may be able to easily substitute a gluten-free crust. But what if they have wheat, garlic and salt allergies and want a pizza? That’s a more complicated request but not insurmountable. Would your staff be able to accommodate that?
• Be prepared. Even the most conscientious, well-trained establishments can make mistakes. If a guest appears to be having an allergic reaction, call 911 immediately.
Guests with food allergies are very loyal to foodservice providers that can accommodate them safely and comfortably. Those with lesser known and/or multiple allergies have a harder time finding dining establishments that can offer them a great experience, meaning they’ll be even more loyal. Serve them well and you’ll have customers for life.
Paul Antico is the CEO and founder of AllergyEats, the leading guide to finding allergy-friendly restaurants. He is the father of five children—three of whom have food allergies. As a passionate food allergy advocate, he serves on the Board of Directors for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), both nationally and for the New England chapter, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Food Allergy Working Group, the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) Advisory Panel for the Consensus Study on Food Allergies and the National Peanut Board Food Allergy Education Advisory Council.