Food Service in the Age of Food Allergies

I often wonder how waitstaff and managers at restaurants feel when I hand them my food allergy list.  Usually, the staff and cooks are thankful that I provide this useful printed tool, but beyond their appreciation, are the concerned?  Are they annoyed?  Are they under the assumption that I just don’t like nuts?  No matter what they may be thinking, one point that recently became overwhelmingly clear is that they are at risk.  That food service provider who I just handed my list to may not realize they are now tasked with keeping me healthy and alive.  In my home state of Massachusetts, we have laws that require training for food service providers.  Waitstaff and cooks are much better informed in Massachusetts than some other states.  These folks might be more apt to fully understand their role in ensuring a customer with severe food allergies does not end up in the ER. 

For food service providers with no required food allergy training, they may not know that they could send me to the hospital if they forget to tell the kitchen about my allergies.  They may not understand any legal or emotional liability they take on when I sit in their restaurant.  I do know that on November 11th, the manager of a restaurant in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport did everything she could to serve me a safe lunch, but was still left knowing she accidentally served me something that could have killed me.  And if I was the type of person who thought lawsuits were the thing to do, she could be facing a day in court.  If I had died, who knows what she could be facing… My heart goes out to her because I know she tried (talked with me about my allergies and the menu, sanitized the food prep area, prepared my food herself), and with my assumption all humans are good and caring, I can imagine she was upset when I required emergency care and an ambulance ride to the hospital.

As I shared recently, a food service manager, despite having had food allergy training, served me food contaminated with one of my severe food allergens.  This occurred despite my best efforts to inform and the manager’s best efforts to keep me safe.  After the incident, I spoke on the phone with the Food and Beverage Operations Manager in the airport.  I learned this allergy-contamination happened due to a different food service professional filling onions on top of depleted, yet lingering, almonds.  The onions were part of my meal.  One person was trained and cautious (the manager), but due to a colleague not being trained and/or not being cautious (the person who refilled the onions), the trained individual unknowingly created a very risky situation. 

Out of my terrifying experience, I also learned from the F and B Operations Manager at the airport that the airport immediately restructured their tiny kitchens to get known severe allergens off the line and stored separately.  He also shared that they were expanding their food allergy training program for everyone working in a restaurant in the airport, including bringing in NSF (The Public Health and Safety Organization).  As he described what they had changed, tears welled-up in my eyes.  I was so thankful that they understood and that they would help keep others like me safer in the future!  Thanks to the fast actions and education offering that resulted from my anaphylactic reaction at the airport, others may eat with less fear during a long day of travel.  Thanks to the airport’s food service responsiveness, they also took a huge step to protect their staff members from a food allergy mistake.

Of course, as people with severe food allergies, we also hold responsibility in keeping ourselves safe.  If we travel (or dine outside your home at all), make printed lists of food allergies that can be given to the restaurant.  Ask to talk to a food-allergy trained worker or manager at the restaurant to discuss allergies and foods that may be safe.  Be willing to not eat if they do not have a food allergy training program for their establishment.  Be knowledgeable enough to both inform them of what you need and interpret their response to judge if the food there is safe.  And on that note, any restaurant who does not feel they can keep someone with a food allergy safe should clearly inform them of that – food allergies are not the time to give it your best effort and hope for the a good result.  Having said that, as we know, accidents will still happen (as happened to me on November 11th), so always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors!!!

As I have thought back on my reaction from a few weeks ago, I wonder if we can do more for food service providers.  How can those of us with food allergies assist them (this, I think is clear – we make tools to provide in restaurants, we communicate details clearly, we ask questions, we assess, and we hold the primary responsibility to keep ourselves safe).  More importantly, how can we, as a national and global community, support food service providers as the number of people with life-threatening food allergies grows?  Do the laws in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Michigan protect our restaurant servers and kitchen staff and should they be expanded to all states?  Have we identified the minimum education requirement that will allow someone working in a restaurant to understand and accommodate food allergies?  I don’t have the answers, but I know we must do more!  By protecting restaurant workers, we also protect those of us who are deathly allergic to foods.

This is a community problem that can only be solved together!