For over 60 years, the primary focus at most restaurants was centered on how to make good food and best serve their customers with minimal limitations or risk. Today, the plot thickens. Food allergies are a bigger issue today (although possibly present back then but in a smaller percentage of the population). It is estimated that nearly 15 million people have food allergies in the US, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). Additionally, the prevalence of food allergy in children rose by 50 percent from 1997 to 2011. Because food allergies are becoming more common, continued food allergen safety education among kitchen staff is becoming increasingly vital.
Risk for Patrons
Food allergic reactions can vary, ranging from mild to severe. The lack of continued instruction and training could make the difference between life and death for some patrons with severe food allergic responses. Although some may experience milder symptoms like stomach upset, other people may experience severe food allergic reactions when coming into contact with a food allergen, resulting in a life-threatening condition known as anaphylaxis where the body becomes hypersensitive to an allergen.
According to FARE, nearly 200,000 hospitalizations occur each year due to severe allergic reactions. Another source states that nearly 30,000 emergency department visits and between 150 and 200 deaths occur annually as a result of food allergies. These numbers have grown significantly over the past two decades.
Risk for Restaurants
Not only is a lack of proper training among kitchen staff a risk for food allergic people but also the restaurant establishments that serve food to the general public.
Imagine for a minute that you are a restaurant owner and your server (who has never undergone any official training on food allergen safety) was told that a person at a table she was serving was allergic to dairy. Your server assumed this only meant the guest could not have milk, so she did not double check to be sure the soup the guest ordered had no butter (made from dairy) in it. The guest then had a severe allergic reaction as a result of eating the food they ate in good faith, assuming the server knew what she was talking about. Imagine the litigation your restaurant may have to face as a result of the lack of proper staff training.
The risk is much more real than a hypothetical story. These situations really do happen (although they may not all result in litigation). In fact, according to Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), 63 food allergy-related fatalities were related to restaurants between 1996 and 2006. This may not sound like a large number to some, but any death that takes place as a result of poor practices is one too many. Additionally, since food allergies are becoming more common in today’s society, the prevalence of food allergy-related deaths linked to restaurant foods has likely risen as well.
Due to the increased prevalence of food allergy and resulting increased litigation risk, it is not enough to say your staff has been trained once. Many certification programs require training for all new staff and additional annual training to maintain best practices.
Where to Find Training
A handful of states are now mandating that restaurants make it safer for food allergic individuals to dine in their establishments, including Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Rhode Island and Virginia along with New York City and St. Paul, Minnesota. If you are in one of these states, contact your local health department to find out where your staff can undergo local training.
A couple quarters are also working to educate restaurants on the importance of the risks associated with the lack of restaurant training when it comes to food allergens. FARE has teamed up with the National Restaurant Association to launch a training course called ServSafe Allergens. Restaurants can also sign up for allergen training through MenuTrinfo. Any restaurant with employees who pass the training can be added to the searchable database of allergy-friendly restaurants by FARE.
Good training is vital to the success of a business in every caliber. From good hygiene to how to cook a burger without burning it, teaching staff to do their jobs properly is imperative. And good restaurants do not just teach kitchen staff how to cook an item one time and walk away, assuming they knew everything from the get go. Repetition is important to ensure that every detail is followed when making that burger so it tastes like every other burger served at the restaurant. Such is the case with food allergen education. The more employees are exposed to information, the more the lasting retention of the information will be, decreasing potentially harmful mistakes that can be avoided while increasing the safety of guests along with the likelihood that they will return.
If you interested in advocating for a law regarding food service allergy training in your area, check out FARE’s Restaurant Legislation Toolkit.