This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.
In earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, strict protocols for food safety and social distancing forced many noncommercial foodservice facilities to place their gluten-free programs on hold. The few organizations that did have the ability to offer gluten-free options relied on a limited selection of prepackaged, grab-and-go items, making it challenging for gluten-intolerant consumers to find items that met their needs. As pandemic protocols begin to relax, many segments of the food industry are reviving their gluten-free programs in a return to business as usual—making it more important than ever to review, identify and mitigate the risks associated with offering gluten-free foodservice.
Whether consumers are gluten-free for medical reasons or as a lifestyle choice, their goal is to find delicious, healthy dining options at a place they can trust to honor their dietary needs. Incorrect and unsafe preparation of gluten-free items can result in serious health consequences for the consumer, in addition to a loss of consumer confidence in the business. In noncommercial foodservice facilities the most significant risks to gluten-free food preparation are human error and inadequate processes during food preparation and service, but luckily these can be mitigated using a few simple lines of defense.
Gluten-free foodservice risks in noncommercial facilities
From university dining halls to senior residential communities, there’s a need for gluten-free options in a wide range of noncommercial foodservice facilities. However, because the risks associated with gluten-free food preparation can look different depending on facility type and the population served, it’s vital to develop awareness of the kinds of challenges you may encounter in your specific sector.
Let’s look at three:
Hospitals. In a medical setting, food is prepared in a kitchen and then delivered to patients by aides. Because hospital staff may lack training or experience in foodservice, one of the most significant risks in this setting is human error from aides who may be unable to verify that individual food items meet the needs of gluten-free patients. To address this risk, hospital staff need to ensure that gluten-free meals and snacks are available and clearly marked. This way, gluten-free items can be delivered to patients who request them, whether for their meal or when their medication must be taken with food.
Senior living facilities. Senior communities share many of the same risks as hospitals but have some additional challenges that stem from serving an aging population. Residents may have difficulty communicating their need for gluten-free items, and those with memory loss may refuse gluten-free options despite needing them—both of which can create a tricky balancing act between honoring resident preferences and promoting their well-being. To limit liability, facilities can take extra care to document when residents decline dietary recommendations in case somebody gets sick, or a family member complains.
University dining halls. While the limited number of gluten-free options is a common concern across foodservice sectors, students at colleges and universities are particularly hard-hit by the lack of options available to them in dining halls. This is particularly true for gluten-free college students in their first year, who are often required to purchase a meal plan even when it does not offer food items that meet their dietary needs. If dining halls don’t offer sufficient gluten-free items, these students are compelled to pay for a meal plan they can’t use and spend additional money to purchase food they can eat.
Tips for serving safe gluten-free food
Offering gluten-free choices doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. It doesn’t cost anything to move ingredients that contain gluten away from areas used to prepare gluten-free dishes. Another quick, inexpensive fix is to train staff to use dedicated utensils to plate gluten-free dishes on the service line.
Promoting safe gluten-free food service boils down to education and training. Foodservice staff need to be informed about the risks of serving foods containing gluten to clients with celiac disease or other forms of gluten sensitivity. Staff training can also be modified to address prevention of cross-contact and to identify ingredients that may contain hidden sources of gluten.
Another good practice is to envision the worst-case scenario in your specific context and to use this as an opportunity to implement pre-emptive problem-solving measures in your facility.
Finally, when training staff, don’t forget about the front of the house. Servers equipped to use and understand gluten-free terminology will be able to answer questions about the menu and prevent cross-contact in the service area.
These additional steps also reduce risk…
- Have a checklist of food that your facility orders regularly and identify the gluten-free items on that list. Update the list at least annually.
- Verify that substituted ingredients are gluten-free and inform your vendors about the importance of providing gluten-free replacements.
- Have a clear system for marking gluten-free items on your menus and signage.
- Apply to have your facility validated by an organization such as the Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS). In addition to establishing trust with gluten-free consumers, this process ensures you have the right support for long term implementation of gluten-free safety procedures.
With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, now is the perfect time for noncommercial foodservice facilities to resume—or launch—a gluten-free program. There are various risks associated with each type of foodservice facility, but identifying and mitigating these through education, validation and safe handling procedures will allow your facility to service gluten-free food safely. Done correctly, and with a range of healthy, delicious options, gluten-free foodservice will win you the loyalty of consumers, not to mention increasing the profitability of your business.
Cynthia Kelly is CEO of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) and is a dietitian and expert in celiac disease management. GIG’s food safety programs, the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) and Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS), have been recognized leaders in the gluten-free community for more than 20 years.