Restaurant food allergen practices

Despite the estimated 15 million Americans with food allergies, a majority of restaurants are not prepared for customers with food allergies, according to a report by the CDC’s Environmental Health Specialists Network. This study found fewer than 50 percent of restaurant managers and even fewer food workers and servers reported that they had received restaurant food allergy training while working at their respective establishments.

Nearly half of reported fatal food allergy reactions over a 13-year period were caused by food from a restaurant or food establishment, and this report further illuminates the lack of awareness and preparedness restaurants have in dealing with customers with food allergies. Surveys were done on restaurants in California, Minnesota, New York and New York City with English-speaking managers, food workers and servers.

  • Among managers, about 44 percent reported that they had received training on food allergies while working at their respective restaurants
  • Among food workers, that percentage decreased to about 40 percent
  • Among servers – the staff speaking directly with the customer – only one-third reported having received training on food allergies

The FDA 2013 Food Code recommends that persons in charge are themselves aware of the seriousness of food allergies and to be responsible for including food allergy awareness into food safety training for employees as it pertains to their jobs.

Dining out is a gamble for people with food allergies and intolerances, especially if restaurant staff are not trained on menu ingredient lists, how to properly accommodate allergies, and what the major allergens even are. Most food-allergic diners grill the wait staff and food workers about ingredients, preparation and handling of food before they order, but if staff has not been trained, there is little to no reliability in the answers they receive.

For example, of the managers surveyed, almost half said they had few to no ingredient lists or recipes for menu items, almost 80 percent had no dedicated utensils for allergen-free food, and even more had no dedicated area of the kitchen or dedicated fryer for making allergen-free food (about 90 percent and 88 percent, respectively). These responses mean that not only do kitchens not have dedicated areas to prepare allergen-free foods, but most aren’t training their staff on how to prevent cross-contact.

The report also notes that these percentages might even be overrepresented because of social desirability bias, low response rate and other limitations in the survey.

If you have a food allergy, these statistics may not be all that shocking. According to FARE, just five states – Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island and Virginia – have laws designed to increase food allergy awareness in restaurants. Not only do more states need to join these ranks, but restaurants need to take it upon themselves do more in providing training to all staff about food allergies.

Restaurants don’t need to do it alone. Organizations like MenuTrinfo are offering restaurant food allergy training and certification programs to get them up to speed on how to meet the needs of people with food allergies. FARE also provides tools like SafeFARE to help both consumers and restaurants navigate dining out with food allergies.

Read the full restaurant food allergy practices report here. Want to dig into restaurant practices even more? We covered a host of food allergen issues from a recent USDA meeting.