Allergen-free meal requests can be a hassle for any busy food business. They require special preparation, time and communication between front- and back-of-house staff. If a business is not prepared to handle these requests, they can disrupt the flow of service and drag employees “into the weeds”.
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 increasingly common in Canada, with more than 2.6 million Canadians (roughly 7%) self-reporting at least one. While the percentage of people with a physician-diagnosed food allergy is likely to be lower, it is estimated that 3–4% of adults and 5–6% of children in Canada suffer from food allergies.
The effect of an allergen on a person who is allergic to it can lead to serious health consequences, including anaphylaxis — a life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur within seconds of exposure. If not treated right away, it can be fatal. In all cases, a severe allergic reaction has a devastating effect on the individual's physical and emotional well-being and can also cause distress for customers and employees who witness the incident.
Food businesses and employees must understand their obligation to know what ingredients are in the food products they prepare, serve and sell. They are legally responsible for serving customers a safe meal — this includes customers who suffer from food allergies. Ignorance is not an excuse, nor a defence.
To protect your customers and your business from the consequences of a severe allergic reaction, follow these five simple rules.
1. Know the most common food allergens
The following foods cause 90 percent of allergic reactions in Canada:
- tree nuts
- sesame seeds
- shellfish (e.g. crustaceans, molluscs)
These foods are referred to as “priority allergens” by Health Canada and are subject to enhanced labelling requirements (gluten is also subject to these enhanced regulations). Even trace amounts of these foods can cause a severe or life-threatening reaction in some people.
Any food can be an allergen. Take allergy 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 — this includes ingredients of ingredients. 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. Many food businesses delegate these responsibilities to the back-of-house employees who prepare or cook the food under the supervision of a kitchen manager who coordinates how information is recorded, stored and communicated.
Not sure how to check for allergens by other names on food labels? CIFS Members can download our Identifying Allergens Fact Sheets from the CIFS Resource Library.
3. Know how to communicate 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, never 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. Know how to 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, do the following:
- Always document and verbally alert kitchen and wait staff when a customer has ordered an allergen-free meal.
- Keep a designated allergen-free meal preparation area set aside; clean and sanitize the area after each use to remove allergen residues.
- Only use clean and sanitized utensils when storing, preparing or serving an allergen-free meal.
- Clean and sanitize surfaces, equipment and utensils between uses.
- Don't reuse 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. Be prepared with an allergen management plan
Policies and procedures for managing allergy risks should be incorporated into your food business's Food Safety Plan. 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 it 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, whiskey sour).
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 recognize the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction?
- Do they know what to do/who to alert in the event of an emergency?
The best and easiest way to prevent food safety incidents (including anaphylaxis) and their consequences for your business is through training and ongoing education. Certified Food Handlers can mean the difference between a thriving business and closed doors.
Find out more about how to manage food allergen risks in your food business with the CIFS Guide to Allergen Management for Food Businesses.