Chapter 3 Allergens
In the US, over 15 million people have a food based allergy. That is a frightening statistic and the number of people with an allergy is growing!
You have both a legal and moral responsibility to protect anyone who has an allergy. You get this part wrong and you could kill somebody.
So what exactly is a food allergy and how does it affect someone?
A food allergy occurs when the bodys immune system, which normally works to protect the body, mistakenly attacks a food protein. The body sees the certain food protein as a threat and attempts to defend itself, sometimes with fatal consequences. For those who suffer from allergies, even the smallest amount of an allergenic substance can cause a reaction that ranges from a mild tingling sensation to anaphylactic shock and even death if not treated quickly. Since the causes of allergic reactions and food intolerance are still unknown, avoiding the offending food is currently the only way a sufferer can manage their condition.
What are the symptoms of an Allergic Reaction?
15 million people suffering from allergies is a frightening number and you need to be able to spot the signs of an allergenic reaction. The time it takes between recognising an attack and an emergency assistance response can quite simply be a matter of life and death. Now the type of reaction and its severity will depend on the individual. In some cases, even a very small amount of an allergen such as nuts or even the dust particles from nuts can cause a severe adverse reaction including a potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. Reactions can include:
- Flushing/redness of the skin and hives
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- A sudden fall in blood pressure causing weakness, dizziness, and even unconsciousness
- Difficulty in swallowing or speaking due to the swelling of the throat and tongue
- Difficulty breathing due to constricting of the airways
- Severe asthma
- Collapse & unconsciousness (anaphylactic shock)
Any person who says they have an allergy must be taken seriously and as an industry we have a moral and legal duty to protect the customers we serve!
What types of food are allergens?
Although any food can potentially cause an allergic reaction, only 8 are thought to be responsible for over 98% of allergenic reactions. These include:
- Peanuts and Tree Nuts (which include walnuts and pecan nuts)
- Milk and dairy products (lactose intolerance)
- Eggs and egg products
- Soy and soy products
- Fish and shellfish
- Wheat (gluten and cereals containing Gluten)
How are Allergic reactions avoided?
Most people who suffer from allergies are aware and will be very careful when ordering and eating out. If they are uncertain or doubt the information you provide, they will usually avoid any dish that has the potential to harm them. However, it is your legal responsibility to be able to answer any question confidently and accurately. Always check! If you guess -you could kill somebody!
Be sure to have access to a folder containing all recipe information. This is a great way of re-assuring allergy sufferers and proving you run or work for a professional business that cares for its customers.
Beware of Hidden Allergens
Hidden allergens are probably the biggest threat to your customers safety and you MUST take care when developing a dish or using an ingredient in a finished product.
Here are some typical examples of HIDDEN INGREDIENTS in commonly used products.
- Fish (anchovies) in: Worcestershire sauce, Special Fried Rice
- Shellfish in: Special Fried Rice
- Milk in: Cheese, Potato Snacks, Yogurt, Butter, Cream
- Nuts in: Indian Curry Pastes/Sauces, Thai Pastes/Sauces, Cooking Oils, Bread
- Soy in: Cooking oil, Soy Sauce
- Eggs in: Pastry, Pastry Glaze
- Wheat in: Bread, Pastry, Pizza Bases, Pasta such as Lasagne sheets, Stock Cubes, and Worcestershire sauce.
Our Best Practice suggestion is when you are adding an ingredient, carefully read the manufacturers ingredient declaration panels. Always check and be sure!
You may not want to change or remove the ingredient from your dish, but you need to understand which hidden allergens it contains and more importantly, add this to your recipe list and make sure all staff are aware.
How can communication save lives?
Clear and frequent communication is vital in helping to prevent an allergenic reaction. Everybody in the business needs to understand why these procedures are in place and appreciate just how dangerous an allergenic reaction can be. A good idea is to suggest that your company has team briefings. They are an ideal time to train, discuss menu and supplier changes and establish how to communicate allergy information to your customers. Establish a clear procedure on how front-of-house staff communicate with the kitchen staff when an allergy sufferer is eating in the business.
Always make sure new and temporary staff also understand about Allergens, as this can be a weak link in your operation. Encourage everyone to ask if they are in doubt.
Remember: Communicate -Communicate Communicate!
How are Suppliers & Storage involved in Allergen control?
At this stage, it would be good to talk about suppliers and storage. Only use approved suppliers that you trust and who can provide detailed ingredient information. If your supplier delivers a product that is not your normal brand, carefully check the ingredients panel to make sure the product is suitable. Always check for hidden ingredients! With regards to storage, have clearly-labelled, dedicated storage containers for named allergens with secure lids to avoid cross-contamination. Clear, strong plastic storage boxes are ideal.
Try to store allergenic foods in a separate area of the storage room. If this is not possible due to the size of storage, position allergenic foods on the lower/bottom shelves to prevent spillage and cross-contamination problems.
Always use dedicated scoops to decant each allergenic product. Do not be tempted to use one scoop for several products.
Thinking about Food Preparation: Cook & Assembly of the Dish
Lets discuss Food Preparation. Specifically, how a dish is cooked and how it is assembled. At this stage of the process, the risk of cross-contamination is at its highest.
One moments lapse of concentration can have tragic consequences. A common and simple mistake when busy is to use the same stirring spoon, cross-contaminating the dish in seconds!
It is also common practice for a wok or frying pan to be wiped between dishes as the high cooking temperatures involved kill pathogenic bacteria. However, this does not remove traces of allergens. A similar risk occurs with oven and baking trays.
We strongly recommend some Best Practice of having a set of separate items such as spoons, ladles, tongs, knives, pans and oven trays. These should be stored separately and used when a customer informs staff of an allergy. Make sure they are thoroughly cleaned afterwards and not used for other products when busy.
Also, a strict hand washing policy must be observed before preparing allergen-free dishes. All staff must be aware of this policy including front-of-house staff.
A good idea is to plan new dishes a few days before you serve them. This way all staff can be made aware and ensure they have the recipe available if a customer asks. Watch out for hidden ingredients such as cooking oils. And if you do accidentally cross-contact a dish, you must destroy it and start again. Remember -even the tiniest amount of peanut dust or particle is enough to kill someone.
What Allergen risks are there for Front of House service?
Alongside preparation and cooking, front of house is probably the most dangerous area and where it can go terribly wrong when it comes to Allergens. The three main danger points are:
- Self Service
- Menu Information
- Staff yes that means YOU might be a danger point!!!
Lets look at each of these.
Self-Service areas that allow the customer to serve themselves are an area for real concern because of cross-contamination. Where customers serve themselves, separate serving utensils must be used for each food item to avoid cross-contamination. Ideally, have a member of staff available to help customers and monitor the buffet. This way serving utensils and food can be quickly replaced if they become cross-contaminated. Service spoons, forks or tongs will carry allergens. It is essential that separate and clean serving utensils are always used for allergy sufferers.
The best option when creating your menus is to make them clear and easy to read for those with food allergies. Try to mention allergens in the menu description, for example: Strawberry Tart with Almonds. Add a statement on your menu. For example: Before you order your food and drinks, please speak to a member of staff if you have a food allergy or food intolerance. Also, if you have menus on the table, clean them as often as possible. Just think how many hands will touch the menu in a day. In extreme allergy sufferers, even touching a menu that has even the slightest trace of peanut dust left from a previous customer is enough to trigger a reaction.
Front of House Staff
If a customer has a question or request about allergens within a particular dish, listen carefully to what the customer is telling you and write down the information. Read the information back to the customer to check you have accurate instructions for the chef. Always be honest and ask if you don't know. If you cannot find the information required, again be honest and inform the customer. They would rather be safe and will appreciate your honesty.
How does Cleaning help manage Allergen risks?
Effective and thorough cleaning plays a vital part in reducing the risk of allergenic cross-contamination. If you are asked to prepare a meal for someone who has a severe allergy to nuts for example, you need to determine what, where, and how you clean before starting the prep.
Think of the Danger Points:
- Cooler/freezer handles
- Preparation area
- Food products already in use on the prep area, cooking area and assembly area
- It might be worth waiting a few minutes for service to pass before beginning cleaning
- Utensils, pots, pans, knives etc. that are needed
- Plates, cutlery, glasses
- Check your clothing -what about your chef coat, apron, and hat? Are they clean?
An important point to remember is that a sufferer will be prepared to wait the extra few minutes rather than risk the threat of a severe allergenic reaction. Make sure you inform them why there may be a delay, they will appreciate it!
As we mentioned at the start of this chapter, Food Allergies are a serious and growing threat you need to be aware of. Any person who says they have an allergy must be taken seriously and as an industry we have a moral and legal duty to protect the customers we serve!
So, lets wrap up with a few vital key points.
1/. Communication is key! You must understand what the customer is asking for and you need to ensure that the kitchen and front of house staff understand one another. And be honest if you dont know something say so! 2/. Watch for hidden ingredients Do you know exactly what is in a certain recipe? As before, it goes back to communication.
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Well see you in Chapter 4 where we are going to look more closely at Time and Temperature Control.