How to Prevent Food Allergy Exposure as a Food Server

By Kristen Chandler

Prevent Food Allergy Exposure as A Food Server

As the parent of children with food allergies, one of whom with severe food allergies, eating outside of our home is a rare occasion. There are allergens everywhere, and the risk of cross-contamination and cross contact is much higher in a restaurant. Not to mention if your child has multiple allergies—after eliminating items on the menu that contain the allergens, the selection of food remaining that’s safe for them to eat is usually minimal.

So far this year, two major food allergy-related incidents have occurred involving restaurants. One of them was in the United States and the other in Canada. In the U.S., a young girl was exposed to her peanut allergen when she ate a sandwich from Panera, although her mother had noted in several places on the online order that there was a peanut allergy to be avoided. The family went on to sue the restaurant. Most recently in Canada, a waiter was arrested after he served a dish containing seafood to a customer with a severe seafood allergy. These incidences have brought up the following question: Who is responsible for the safety of people with food allergies when they dine out?

In my opinion, the answer is: everyone involved. As a parent of a child with food allergies, or the person who has food allergies, you are responsible for doing your research on the restaurant to learn their policies and practices, and what menu items are safe or unsafe to eat. You are also responsible for making the staff aware of your child’s (or your) food allergies. Staff is then responsible for following restaurant policies where food allergies are concerned and for following the instructions of customers pertaining to their allergies. Restaurant owners and managers are responsible for training staff to handle food allergy situations and to ensure they’re following procedure when applicable.

Staff members who understand or have experience with food allergies tend to be more vigilant in these situations. Some of the food servers who have taken the best care of us have been people who had food allergies themselves and outgrew them, or people who had family members with food allergies.

Below are some tips that will help food service providers when serving people who have food allergies. If you work in the food service industry or know someone who does, please feel free to share.

The Top Eight

First, all food servers should familiarize themselves with the main allergens responsible for causing reactions. There are many food allergies out there, but eight allergens are most commonly known for causing allergic reactions. These allergens are recognized by the FDA and are referred to as “The Top Eight” or “The Big Eight.” They are: eggs, milk (dairy), peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.

Before and While Seating the Customer

Make sure the table, chairs and all items on the table have been sanitized. Laminated menus should be cleaned as well.  Use a spray bottle with a cleaning solution (or bleach diluted with water) as opposed to a bucket. With a bucket, food proteins from other tables could still be floating in the water and contaminate the surface you are trying to clean. These proteins could be clinging to the cleaning rag as well, so make sure you use a clean rag too.

All servers should be knowledgeable about the ingredients used to prepare every item on the menu. If a server is new or has not yet been educated about food allergies, someone with more experience or knowledge should handle the table. All restaurant staff should be informed when a customer with food allergies is dining, so all can practice caution. Designate a staff member to check that all safety precautions are being carried out when a customer with food allergies is eating in the restaurant.

Food Preparation

Chefs and cooks need to be educated about “The Top Eight” and how to properly handle, prepare and cook with these ingredients. Before preparing food, change into a clean apron and gloves. If no gloves are worn, wash hands thoroughly. Sanitize the food preparation surface as well as all utensils and dishes that will be used.

Use a piece of foil on the grill, with the food placed on top of it rather than directly on the grill surface. The foil will act as a barrier, as grills require deep cleaning to remove food proteins and time may not permit it. Use a separate fryer with clean grease to prepare any fried foods the customer has ordered.

Try to have designated utensils and dishes available for customers with food allergies. These should be washed, sanitized and stored in a safe place where there is no chance of contamination.

And the biggest thing to remember: if you make a mistake, START OVER. Yes, it may seem inconvenient and take longer, but saving time is not worth putting someone’s life at risk.

What to Do If a Customer Has an Allergic Reaction

Being the parent of children with food allergies, I know you can be prepared and cautious, but a reaction could still occur. You need to not only be able to recognize the signs of an allergic reaction but also be prepared for what to do should a reaction occur. Signs of an allergic reaction include:

  • Rash
  • Hives
  • Itchy Skin
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Trouble Breathing or Swallowing
  • Swelling of the eyes, face, lips or tongue


If a customer is in distress, do not leave them alone. Have a co-worker notify the manager and direct someone to call 911. Someone should meet the paramedics at the door to go over the situation with them. Prior to the paramedic’s arrival, assist the customer in controlling the reaction, including helping inject them with epinephrine if needed.

We hope this article will help educate those in the food service industry on being prepared to serve customers with food allergies and help them in the event of an allergic reaction. We would love to hear your thoughts on this. Was it helpful? Was there something else we could have added it to make this article more informative? Please leave us a comment below.

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