What If Goldilocks Was Allergic to the Porridge?
Unless you have lived with the fear of anaphylaxis as a result of food allergies, you may not realize the dangers that exist at many turns. And, as a business person, you may not realize the liability potential which could result from an allergic episode. The possibility of an allergic reaction exists in most any industry; hospitality, recreation, food processing, distribution, education, healthcare…virtually anywhere along the food chain.
As both a safety professional and parent of a child with a severe food allergy, I approach this issue in a systematic way. Strict avoidance and absolute preparedness is our strategy. I find that most places we go—(school, restaurants, our local ski area, or hotels)—are happy to help us have safe and fulfilling experiences. Momma Bear is vigilant where her cub is concerned…and Momma and Papa Bear patronize the places where we feel confident again and again.
One may think they are up to speed on food allergies. However, a study published in a 2006 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology detailed how chefs, managers, and servers quizzed on their food allergy knowledge gave numerous erroneous answers:
- 34% thought that heat destroyed allergens.
- 29% thought that scraping the allergen off of a patron’s food was acceptable.
- 25% thought that consuming a small amount of an allergen was safe.
Steps to Manage Your Food Allergy Risk
Recognize that there are an estimated 15 million Americans with food allergies, and many of them are patronizing your business. As a result, you should consider the vulnerabilities your business has to food allergic reactions in order to develop a suitable game plan. Although there are no foolproof strategies to avoid all possible allergic reactions in your establishment, the following steps can help minimize the potential for an incident (and perhaps earn some customer loyalty):
- Add a statement to your menu, or in a conspicuous space in your facility, which requests that diners inform you of any food allergy or dietary restriction. Your attorney can help develop this language.
- Provide training to key employees on food allergies, including recognizing allergic reaction signs and symptoms, hidden allergens and avoiding cross-contamination potential. Make sure that all employees know how serious food allergies are, and what their roles are, even if it is only to say “I don’t know” and get the appropriate help. Employees should never guess at an answer where food allergies are concerned.
- Have a chef or manager discuss food allergies and menu choices directly with customers who inform you of a food allergy.
- Develop a standard method of conveying a customer’s food allergy to the kitchen staff to assure that all employees on the line are aware and can avoid cross contamination by using clean utensils and washed hands or new gloves. The plate should be delivered with clean hands. (I’ve seen companies who put a colored self-stick tab on a plate of a food-allergic patron.)
- Maintain stringent housekeeping and labeling policies. Know what kind of detergents remove an allergen protein from a dish or surface.
- Save packaging labels of appropriate products for a guest to review if requested, and be sure to update labels periodically as changes can occur.
- If you serve buffet style, the best solution may be to retrieve the guest’s food from the kitchen directly, as buffets are magnets for cross contamination.
- Develop a plan for assisting a patron having an allergic reaction, which likely should include calling 911. With anaphylaxis, every minute counts.
- Check your local laws.
What If One of My Patrons Has an Allergic Reaction?
Consider the following scenarios:
- A patron with a seafood allergy orders soup. Neither the patron nor the server knows it is seasoned with fish sauce.
- Your food manufacturing company changed an ingredient, but used existing packaging with a label for the old method, and a consumer has an allergic reaction to an undisclosed ingredient.
- A child with a nut allergy takes bread from the buffet, not knowing it previously sat next to a pecan roll.
There is potential liability in each situation, and the following are some steps you can take to respond to the situation:
- The patron hopefully has allergy medication, such as an epinephrine auto injector, with them. She or one of her companions will likely administer the drug as first aid.
- Follow your allergic reaction plan. Calling 911 quickly may be critical as anaphylaxis is a true medical emergency. The paramedics and hospital will take additional lifesaving measures.
- Document the incident, including what happened, the contact information for staff and witnesses involved, menu items, how the order was taken and conveyed to the kitchen, and how the food was served. Immediately advise your insurance agent.
We strictly avoid the allergens which affect our child, however, she lives a very full life. When selecting dining establishments, day camps, or extracurricular activities, we partner with establishments which take our concerns seriously. In a restaurant, this is demonstrated through the manager, the server, and the chef. I have also had very helpful conversations with food manufacturers, even one who makes our hamster food. And, I am establishment and brand loyal. I encourage you to challenge your own exposure to, and knowledge of, food allergies, and have a plan to accommodate guests safely.
Additional Food Allergy Resources for Business
There are several resources to help a business become more educated on food allergies, including:
- Your state and local government. Massachusetts has a food allergy awareness act (http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/programs/food-protection.html).
- The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (www.foodallergy.org), including their series of training videos made with celebrity chef, Ming Tsai.
- Your own trade association, which may have information or programs specific to your industry.
- Your Acadia Loss Control Representative.
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Acadia is pleased to share this material for the benefit of its customers. Please note, however, that nothing herein should be construed as either legal advice or the provision of professional consulting services. This material is for informational purposes only, and while reasonable care has been utilized in compiling this information, no warranty or representation is made as to accuracy or completeness. Recipients of this material must utilize their own individual professional judgment in implementing sound risk management practices and procedures.