Individuals with food allergies must be properly accommodated across all spectrums of the food service industry. Approximately 230,000 hospitalizations and 200 deaths occur annually because food-allergic individuals accidentally ingested or inhaled their allergens. Make one tiny mistake with “just a trace” of an allergen, and someone could die, literally.
Recently, I was teaching food safety classes for a convenience store chain after they had rolled out barista-style coffee. At one point during class, we were discussing the new products and I discovered they offered a beverage containing soy milk. Later in the day, as we talked about food allergies, I used the soy milk as an example. I remember saying, “It’s great that you have signs with warnings that state: Soy products are served here; therefore, there could be potential contamination.” Everyone in the class looked at me like I was speaking a language they’d never heard. I then said, “You do have a warning statement, don’t you?” Slowly, everyone began to shake their heads no.
Having no signage about food allergens and possible contamination was the first of a series of problems, showing me that these employees were not properly trained to accommodate food-allergic customers. We discussed cleaning procedures for the mixers that were used for multiple beverages, including products with common allergens like peanut butter, dairy and soy, and the employees told me they were just being “spun” in water with sanitizer, not thoroughly cleaned with hot water and soap before being sanitized. Additionally, there was not an assigned mixer for allergen-free products only. This brand had big problems.
During the next break, I called the corporate office to inform them of these oversights. A few hours later, after class, I stopped into another one of their units on the way home. In the short time since I’d reported the problem to corporate, the stores had already posted temporary allergen warning signs. I also noticed that they had labeled the mixers for allergen and allergen-free products. This showed – without a doubt – how valuable an external set of eyes and ears can be. I was delighted to see that the convenience store chain was able to quickly fix their errors and start improving their food allergy protocols. The leadership team was ecstatic that these issues were caught (and resolved) prior to a tragedy.
I’ve had numerous conversations with individuals who (erroneously) believe that cooking oil gets hot enough to “kill the protein” that causes an allergic reaction. This is simply not true. Speaking of cooking oil, don’t use the same fryer or oil for French fries that you use for breaded products, fish or foods containing nuts, as doing so will cause cross-contact for people with gluten, fish or nut allergies. Allergen-free foods must be cooked in clean oil, using separate (clean) prep stations and equipment (cutting boards, knives, pans, etc.)
All food service establishments – including convenience stores – must have procedures in place to ensure safe experiences for food-allergic customers, and must train all employees to always follow these procedures.
Here are a few tips to make your stores allergy-friendly:
- Create a separate workspace in your prep areas to prepare allergen-free products. Make certain you clean and sanitize all work surfaces and equipment.
- Utilize color coded allergy tools in your kitchens to reduce the risk of cross-contact. Purple is the universal color for allergen-free kitchen utensils. Keep these tools clean and covered.
- Identify allergen-free products with colored stickers (purple is the color of choice) so they can be easily identified.
- Make certain all dishware is properly washed, rinsed, and sanitized prior to reuse.
- Ensure that all employees know the ingredients in every component of every food they serve, including sauces, marinades, sandwich breads, etc. Train them to read and understand ingredient labels.
- Ensure that your employees know the “aliases” for common allergens – e.g., casein and whey are dairy, semolina is grain, etc.
- Communicate with your team, and train them on food allergy protocols. There are numerous webinars, videos, and live classes that can assist you with this endeavor.
It’s critical that everyone on your staff understands the difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination:
- Cross-contact occurs when an allergen is inadvertently transferred from a food containing an allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen – such as chopping peanuts on a board and then chopping grilled chicken on that same board. The grilled chicken has come into contact with the peanuts, which could trigger an allergic reaction in a guest with peanut allergies. Cooking does not reduce or eliminate the risk of cross-contact.
- Cross-contamination is a common factor in the cause of foodborne illness. If you place raw chicken on a board, and then chop vegetables on that same board, you risk cross-contamination, spreading bacteria from the raw poultry onto the vegetables. Proper cooking of the contaminated food in most cases will reduce or eliminate the chances of a foodborne illness.
The main difference between cross-contact and cross-contamination is that anyone can become ill from cross-contamination if they eat foods that have touched raw meats or poultry. Cross-contact is dangerous only for food-allergic guests, who may inadvertently ingest their allergens if proper care wasn’t taken during food prep.
Approximately 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 1 in 13 children. Food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011 and no one understands why. Recognized that 25% of people’s first allergic reactions happen outside the home. This issue isn’t going to go away any time soon. Train your staff to recognize the signs of an allergic reaction, and have plan in place in case one occurs at your store. A “small” mistake – such as standing someone up in the midst of an anaphylactic reaction – could be fatal.
Everyone on your team should know how to handle an order for someone with food allergies. Consumers are seeking out establishments where they can eat worry free. These establishments will earn brand loyalty and, therefore, increase profitability. Wouldn’t it be nice to be recognized as the C-store that consumers with food allergies can eat with confidence?