Over the past two decades, we have seen an increase in food allergies in the United States, which has had a major impact on hotels, restaurants, and other food service establishments. As we see a rise in food allergies, we need to see an increase in food allergy training. This is happening, slowly, in food service across the country. Over the past few years, more allergy training courses and certifications have been developed, and regulations for training and notifications have been put into place. But more needs to be done to educate and train food service employees around safely and successfully accommodating food allergies.
Food service employees need to 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, how to avoid cross-contact, the importance of ingredient labeling, and how to engage in open communication with the customers. With all the things that are happening in a kitchen, food allergy concerns can sometimes take a back seat, which can be dangerous—and even life-threatening. When front-of-house and back-of-house employees work together to accommodate food-allergic guests, customers can be served safely and it could very well save their lives.
Approximately 15 million people in the USA have food allergies, including 9 million adults and 6 million children. The 8 most common allergies—milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts—make up 90 percent of American’s food allergies. Keep in mind there are over 160 foods that have been identified as an allergen, so food industry professionals need to be aware that it’s not just the “Big 8” that can trigger symptoms. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include itching, swelling, stomach cramps, vomiting, dizziness, and even death. It is important that food employees get proper training around food allergies to protect their guests.
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 that are being served in restaurants, hotels, and other food service establishments. That is why more ongoing training is necessary for all food service employees.
As of right now, there are five states, and a few counties and cities, across the country that have some type of mandated allergen training for food service employees. Just as it took for time for food safety manager certification to become standard across the country, so will mandated food allergen training. Massachusetts led the way by passing the Act Relative to Food Allergy Awareness in Restaurants (FAAA) in January 2009. Along with having certified food protection managers take additional allergen training, the law also required allergen awareness posters to be displayed in staff areas and notices on menus for consumers. Rhode Island followed suit, passing a similar law in 2012. Michigan’s regulations came in 2014, requiring the poster and manager training to address food allergies. In 2015, Virginia added allergen training standards to their regulations along with providing food allergy education materials to food service employees. Maryland started requiring food allergy awareness posters to be displayed in staff areas in 2016. Texas passed a poster law in employee areas that will take effect on September 1, 2017. New York City, N.Y., and St. Paul, Minn., are two cities that have their own similar allergen awareness requirements. There are more states and jurisdictions that are trying to get regulations passed that will require additional training or some type of customer notification about food allergies.
Until the laws meets up with the protection of consumers, we have to take it upon ourselves to protect our food-allergic guests. Continue to train employees on food allergens, make them aware of the cross-contact risks, and have discussions with customers to explain how dishes are prepared and any potential allergens in the facility. Having 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 to work to improve the quality of services for their food-allergic customers. By all of us working together, regulators, industry, and consumers, we will be able to make the necessary changes to protect anyone with a food allergy.
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.