Allergen training in the food service industry

Waitress_wSalads_resizedSeveral years ago before “allergy-friendly” menus and “gluten-free” options at restaurants were readily available, the food service industry had far fewer obstacles when it came to catering to customers’ dietary needs. However, as the number of individuals with food allergies and intolerances continue to increase worldwide, along with the number of those who dine out frequently, so does the need for proper foodservice employee allergy training.

According to a recent article in Food Safety Magazine, it is estimated that approximately 15 million Americans and 17 million Europeans have food allergies, with 90% of them allergic to at least one of the top eight allergens—milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. As stated in the article, the number of children with food allergies is also growing rapidly, with data showing a 50% increase of children with food allergies between 1997 and 2011.

Over the course of the past few years,  state and municipal mandates across the country have passed ordinances requiring posters in commercial kitchens that highlight the big eight food allergens. According to the article, these posters outline how restaurant staff should proceed if they were informed that a diner had an allergen issue, and how back-of-house staff can best prevent the cross-contamination of menu items and ingredients.

Regardless of the ordinances put in place, there still has been no shortage of instances in the recent years where patrons at restaurants have suffered an allergic reaction from food served or from menu items they consumed that were unknowingly contaminated with allergens. The consequences of this happening can be impossible for some businesses to recover from and once again stresses the importance of allergy training for food industry workers.

As discussed in the article, it is not enough to say that your staff members have completed a food allergen certification course. Best practices must be developed and demand that staff be trained in a manner that will ensure the long-term retention of important points that make the difference between avoidable mistakes and turning patrons with food allergies into loyal repeat customers.

“The American Society for Training and Development has also reported that those who invest more in training have a 37% higher gross profit per employee.” Other studies have found that companies who “spend an average of $273 on employee training have a 7% voluntary employee turnover rate. The decrease in voluntary turnover contributes an overall cost savings to the foodservice provider, because employees are engaged and feel better prepared to handle the demands of their jobs. They feel invested and are less likely to leave because they’re loyal to the brand. Therefore, the investment in employee training and certification courses becomes a win-win for your customers, your staff and your operation overall.”

That being said, the following points are several best practices to follow when serving diners with food allergies:

1. Print your recipes and make them available to staff so everyone knows what ingredients are in your dishes, and what needs to be changed to accommodate diners with allergies. Make sure everyone knows the alternate names for the big eight allergens. A list of alternate names for allergen ingredients, developed by FARE, can be found at

2. Create a policy for both your front- and back-of-house employees. This policy should reflect how each person should handle and react to questions about allergen-free menu items. Policies also should include the resources you use in your restaurant to handle special dietary needs and how your staff handles customers with special requests.

3. Have a disclaimer up in your restaurant that explains to customers the need to alert their server if someone has a food allergy. Post your disclaimer on your website, paper menus and menu boards, and make it easy to see. Your disclaimer should let everyone know the efforts and the lengths to which your restaurant has gone to accommodate diners with special dietary needs.

4. Wipe down every surface first with soapy water and a clean cloth. Afterward, use sanitized cloths to wipe the surfaces again.

5. Identify special dietary meals, such as allergen-free dishes, and highlight them on your menus and menu boards.

6. Use specially marked tools and plates in the kitchen that are reserved for allergen-free dishes.

For more information on Neogen’s food allergen test kits, click here.


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