If you have a child with food allergies, you know the fear and anxiety that comes with eating out. In fact, you may never go out to restaurants because of the safety risks. Why put your child’s safety, or even her life, in the hands of restaurant workers who may or may not be careful about ingredients and cross-contamination?
Eating out is a risk, but with more and more children being diagnosed with food allergies, things are changing. Some restaurants are training staff through special programs designed to help them learn how to avoid contamination and how to be sensitive to the special needs of customers. This kind of food allergen training can protect more children and even save lives.
Restaurants and Food Allergies: The Facts
A few years ago, the National Restaurant Association conducted an industry survey and uncovered some troubling facts about restaurant workers’ knowledge regarding food allergies. Nearly one-quarter of workers thought that it is safe for someone with a food allergy to consume just a small amount of their allergen. More than one-third believed that putting food in the fryer destroys allergens.
More than half of restaurant workers believe that buffets are safe for people with allergies as long as it is kept clean. Twenty-five percent of workers think that simply taking a food off a plate makes a dish safe for a person with allergies. It isn’t just restaurant workers who aren’t up to standards, though. In another survey, only 70 percent of people with food allergies always tell their servers.
Food Allergen Training Programs
Both the National Restaurant Association and allergy advocacy are working to change the statistics by offering training programs for servers, cooks, managers and other restaurant workers. Many of these training programs are online courses, but some are available as in-person events at industry conferences or other types of events.
Regardless of the format, food allergen training needs to address all important issues and must be given to people at all levels of food service for it to be effective and to help protect children. Topics that comprehensive training courses need to cover include basic knowledge of food allergies, how to recognize the symptoms of a reaction, how to recognize allergens in ingredients, how to clean correctly, and the dangers of cross-contamination.
Food services staff should also be trained in good communication between workers, how to communicate sensitively with customers, how to talk to people about their dietary requirements, how to handle requests and how to handle an emergency medical situation.
For the kitchen or back-of-house staff, training is especially important. These are the workers responsible for keeping food allergens out of meals when special requests are made. They need to understand how to maintain an allergen-free space, how to read ingredients and food labels and how to clean dishes, work spaces, countertops, appliances and other food preparation areas before preparing a dish free of allergens.
Is Food Allergen Training Effective?
Food allergen training for food service workers is only effective if it is available to all workers. There is little evidence to show how effective different programs are, or if online programs are sufficient training. What is most important is that more workers are reached and get access to training.
Online programs are great for improving access. Providing an online format reaches more people, but the downside may be that workers are less engaged and may not learn enough hands-on skills using an online training course. Programs that take place in a kitchen may be the most effective in teaching workers the skills they need to keep children safe, but they are more expensive and may not reach everyone in the industry.
The good news for parents and children with food allergies is that awareness is increasing along with the incidence of food allergies. With greater awareness and more participation in training programs, you can feel safer about taking your kids to restaurants. Even so, you should always take precautions and be your child’s first and best advocate.