Restaurant Study Reveals Dangers

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: July 2, 2010

From the Allergic Living Archive – A survey of food service workers found that their personal comfort level in managing customers’ food allergies far exceeds their knowledge.

The New York survey found that about 90 per cent of managers, wait staff and chefs expressed varying degrees of “comfort” in providing a safe meal for customers with food allergies. Yet the findings, published in 2007 in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, pointed to some glaring and dangerous misconceptions among these staff.

A quarter thought removing an allergen from a finished meal – for instance, picking a nut off a salad – was safe. Nearly a quarter thought that eating a small amount of an allergen was safe, 35 per cent thought that high heat destroys allergens and 54 per cent considered a buffet safe if it was kept “clean.” Only 42 per cent of the staff had received any food allergy training.

Authors Ryan Ahuja, a student, and Dr. Scott Sicherer, allergist and associate professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, received completed questionnaires from about 100 staff at various New York City food establishments – from sit-down restaurants to fast-food outlets.

“Our study shows that a person in the restaurant might think they know about making a safe meal but may or may not really understand the rules,” Sicherer told Allergic Living.

“The big take-home point for the allergic consumer is to ensure you communicate that there is an allergy – not just a dislike, that a small amount could be trouble, that the allergy is serious, that you need to speak with people who know what is in the food, and what the chain of preparation was,” he says. Sicherer would like to see food allergy awareness and training become part of the restaurant certification process.

In the U.S., the issue of protecting the food-allergic patron is gaining interest. Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina have all introduced bills (which may or may not pass) that would mandate one or more of the following: the displaying of food allergy awareness and warning posters in the staff area, food allergy training for restaurant operators, and allergy training materials for staff.

Study findings

  • 70% said they could “guarantee” a safe meal to food-allergic customers.
  • 90% said they felt “very comfortable,” “somewhat comfortable” or “comfortable” providing a safe meal.
  • 62% had a plan in place to provide safe meals.
  • 42% of chefs thought giving a person water would help to “dilute” a reaction.
  • 80% recognized peanut, milk and seafood as major allergens.