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 customers’ food allergy needs?
According to ASCIA, Australia has one of the highest food allergy rates in the world, and each year, this number increases worldwide. When people with food allergies eat away from home, they rely on food businesses to provide them with accurate information about ingredients in their food so that they can make informed decisions about what to order. Incorrect or incomplete information puts these individuals’ health, even their lives at risk.
It only takes a couple of extra minutes to answer questions from a customer or handle a special request. This is time well-spent because it avoids dangerous situations, and actually improves your customers’ impression of and loyalty to your business.
So how can you prevent your business from inadvertently harming or alienating customers with allergy problems? This guide will help a Food Safety Supervisor manage allergy risks to protect customers who need to avoid certain ingredients. It includes advice and information on:
- Food allergies
- Food intolerance
- Ideas to include in your food business’ Food Safety Plan.
Understand your enemy
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; intolerances are typically less severe, while food allergies can be life-threatening.
Unlike a food allergy, a food intolerance does not involve the immune system. Instead, it involves the digestive system, and the body simply lacks the mechanism or enzyme needed to digest a particular food properly.
A food allergy is more serious. 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 an allergy can actually go into a life-threatening condition called anaphylactic shock if they consume products including the allergen, even if it’s only a tiny amount. Food staff should keep this difference in mind and remember that food allergies are allergic disorders, not food preferences.
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 Risks Into Your Food Safety Plan
The best way to minimise risks for your customers is to build 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?
- 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 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 should point out all menu items that contain the specific allergen so the customer might choose other options. Then the Food Safety Supervisor should personally tell food staff preparing the food (if it is not pre-packaged) about the allergy so that they can take steps to avoid cross-contamination with the allergen.
Another idea 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 eight allergens in food, either on the package of a food or on 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 levels of 10mg/kg or more
Educate Your Staff
As the Food Safety Supervisor, you can train your staff to deal with a request from a customer about a food allergen. When a customer mentions a particular food allergy and asks whether a dish contains that ingredient, the server should be trained to say, “I don’t know, but let me ask the Food Safety Manager.”
Food businesses often don’t realise that allergy contamination can’t be easily undone. Removing a slice of cheese from a burger, for example, 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.