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Opinion: Food allergy training needs to be mandated

Susan Algeo is the director of project management at Food Safety Training Solutions Inc. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Restaurant Hospitality.

We’ve seen an increase in food allergies in the U.S. over the past two decades, which has had – and continues to have – a major impact on foodservice establishments as they work to accommodate their food-allergic guests. As this increase in food allergies continues, we need to see an increase in food allergy training as well. This is happening, slowly. Recently, more allergy training courses and certifications have been developed, and regulations for training and notifications have been created. But more needs to be done to educate and train foodservice employees around safely accommodating food-allergic guests. 

Approximately 15 million people (9 million adults, 6 million children) in the U.S. have food allergies. The CDC reported that between 1997 and 2007, there was an 18% increase in allergy rates in children. The “Big 8” allergens (milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts) account for 90% of Americans’ food allergies, though there are many other foods that people may be allergic to, including mushrooms, mustard, sesame, beef and even spices – and some people have multiple food allergies that need to be accommodated. Along with concerns about proper procedures for food allergens, we must also protect customers with celiac disease, food intolerances and sensitivities.  

Foodservice employees should understand the risks associated with food allergies and ways they can prevent allergic reactions from happening to their customers. Proper training is required to learn about food allergens, avoiding cross-contact, the importance of labeling and how to engage in open communication with customers about their allergies.  

It’s imperative that restaurants’ staff members know what ingredients are used in every component of every meal on the menu, as well as “aliases” for allergies (e.g., casein and whey are dairy, gluten and semolina are wheat.)

One of the most important elements of proper food safety protocol is avoiding cross-contact, where foods containing an allergen are transferred to foods not containing that allergen, such as chopping shrimp on a board and then chopping salad greens on that same board. A shellfish-allergic guest could have a reaction from eating the greens that came into contact with the shrimp during prep. The difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination is that anyone can become ill from cross-contamination if they eat foods that touched raw proteins. Cross-contact is dangerous only for food-allergic guests, who may inadvertently ingest their allergens if proper care wasn't taken during food prep.

Thankfully, more food allergy legislation is being passed to help protect people with food allergies. Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCP) in 2004, which applies to labeling of foods regulated by the FDA. But labels can only do so much to protect customers – it’s imperative that your staff reads and understands these labels whenever they’re prepping or serving food for an allergic guest. Food allergy legislation is a positive step in protecting food-allergic guests, but it’s still up to the establishment to protect their customers.

Currently, there are six states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Michigan, Maryland, Texas and Virginia), and a few cities (including New York City and St. Paul, Minn.,) that have implemented some type of mandated allergen training for foodservice employees. Just as it took for time for food safety manager certification to become standard across the country, so will mandated food allergen training. While the specifics vary by geography, restaurants in these areas may have allergen awareness posters, manager training requirements and food allergy education materials for employees. Additional states and jurisdictions are trying to get similar regulations passed, which is a positive sign that, moving forward, more foodservice professionals will be better aware, educated and accommodating around food allergies.  

One reason that more states haven’t adopted similar laws to protect food-allergic customers is because those customers don’t make up a majority of the population. Although we’ve seen an increase in food allergy rates, the actual number of people with severe food allergies still remains a small minority of customers (about 4% of the adult population). Because training requires an investment of time and money, until there’s a greater demand for protection, it will take more time for allergen training to be regulated across the country.  

Until the laws meet up with the protection of consumers, we have to take it upon ourselves to protect our food-allergic guests. There are many great training programs and learning materials available. Continue to train employees on food allergens, educate them about cross-contact and communicate with customers about how dishes are prepared. Having regulations for awareness posters displayed and a certified food protection manager knowledgeable about – and trained around – accommodating food allergies is a step in the right direction. However, restaurants need to continue working to improve the quality of services for their food-allergic customers. When regulators, industry and consumers work together, we’ll be able to make the necessary changes to better protect those with food allergies. 

Susan Algeo is the director of project management at Food Safety Training Solutions Inc., where she facilitates food safety training classes, including ServSafe and NRFSP, for corporations nationwide. Susan also provides other food safety services, including food allergy training, as well as consulting, helping operators and their teams improve their standards, procedures and overall commitment to food safety. Additionally, she conducts third-party inspections of customers’ operations to improve their health inspection results. Susan is currently president of the New Jersey Association for Food Protection. She is also co-author of the SURET Food Safety series. These training manuals are aimed at improving food safety procedures for employees, managers and trainers in foodservice and retail establishments. 

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