Restaurant’s Perspective: Safeguarding Allergic Diners is Complex

We often receive questions about dining out with food allergies. It’s a difficult problem; one that is only now beginning to receive the proper attention it deserves.

An important issue in assuring the safety of diners with food allergies is the proper training of the restaurant management and personnel responsible for procuring and preparing the ingredients that end up in your dish. Our friends at Dine Aware™ provide such training to the benefit of the industry at large.

Paula Cooper, CEO of Dine Aware, recently shared an incident with us that does a wonderful job of demonstrating the complexities of dealing with allergens in a food service setting. We thought we would provide an excerpt here to give you an idea of what might happen behind the scenes at a restaurant near you.

Here’s the question from one of Paula’s clients:

Hi Paula,

I’ve been continuing with my restaurant work towards making guests happy, but I am turning to you and your expertise because I’m trying to determine the truth behind a troubling incident.

A beloved guest [with Celiac Disease that must avoid all traces of gluten] got sick. The cooks want to blame the soybean oil in the saute product known as “Whirl”. Yet the same guest has not reported symptoms from the 100% soybean “vegetable” oil in our Italian salad dressing. The Internet searches I’ve done aren’t real conclusive, they point to the farmers’ equipment cross-contaminating during harvest.

Sadly I think my cooks contaminated the dish but I need evidence to put it back on them. And so I come to you – what is your take on soybean oil and its possible effect on celiac sufferers?

Thank you very much for your time,
G.

Paula’s reply probably provided much more context and insight than G. expected, and shows how complex this issue really is:

Hi G.,

Short answer it is, it’s hard to say. You are correct, soybean crop has a huge amount of cross-contamination and it is possible this is what caused your customer’s reaction. As a person with Celiac, there are two flags that immediately jump up at me:

  1. A product with the name “Whirl” seems as though it is highly processed. As such, the more processed the ingredient the riskier it becomes. I personally would not want you using that product in my dishes unless it came with a certification or guarantee of some kind that it was gluten-free. I would much prefer an olive oil or other single ingredient oil.
  2. Guessing about the ingredient list on the product. Not having this information readily available ahead of time says to me (as someone with Celiac) they [the restaurant] do not really know their ingredients. The only way to determine what allergens the product contains is to contact the manufacturer. Remember ingredients change (i.e. they use different farms, change the recipe, etc.) so having a strategy in place to verify on an ongoing basis is critical.

Could have it been x-contact too? Absolutely! I would say approximately 99% of the reactions I have had are as a result of x-contact, usually unknown to unaware staff. Often foodservice misunderstands how to prevent this and when it occurs. Your cooks could have been extra cautious while your guest was present but what about during prep hours or even days before? Or your dishwasher; do they know correct washing procedure for food allergy/intolerance (FAI) safety? And your servers; was the dish served with correct procedures to minimize x-contact?

FAI awareness is systemic; in the establishment and industry. Hence, it is everyone’s issue, not just one or two select employees or foodservice segments. The solution must be inclusive of the whole establishment and industry. As such, I’m more inclined to provide helpful suggestions to deal with FAI issues systemically rather than point fingers. In that spirit, here they are:

  • Ingredient List: Having a prepared ingredient list for staff and public consumption should be mandatory. We always recommend that you get written confirmation from the manufacturer*, especially for “risky” ingredients. Even seemingly “benign” ingredients could have hidden allergens or become unsafe during the manufacturing process. If you, as an establishment, are not prepared in this sense before your guests arrive, it puts you and them at considerable risk. The more information you have prepared the better able you are to notify your guest so they can make an informed decision.

    *This is not a fail-safe solution for many reasons (i.e. differing labeling laws, undeclared allergens, etc.) but it is a very important first step.

  • 24/7: X-contact prevention needs to be all the time not just when a guest arrives. For example, if one of your cooks was slicing bread during morning prep and then began to cut vegetables with the same knife or without washing his/her utensils and hands/change gloves first, those veggies could now be unsafe without anyone knowing it hours later. Hence, regardless of the safety measures taken when the guest is physically present they still could have a reaction.
  • Full-team Awareness: The whole staff involved in serving, preparing and sanitizing must have training/awareness. If all your staff are not on the same page then it is easy for the “chain of communication” to be broken, things to fall through the cracks and mistakes to be made.
    Sure, reactions can always happen in a non-dedicated environment, people are not perfect and do make mistakes but if you had a more comprehensive, proactive, full-team awareness plan in place it would create a culture where your employees are working towards the common goal of FAI safety. Ultimately, minimizing the possibility of errors and also making it easier to isolate them so they can be corrected.

Finally, as a person with Celiac I can tell you for your guest to return with any confidence they will want to know what changes you are implementing so that the chances of a reaction are minimized in the future.

I hope that helps!
Paula

Paula provides us with a summary of what happened next and some important takeaways to consider:

The restaurant took my recommendation to reach out to the manufacturer and request ingredient information. The reply was that the product was, in fact, NOT gluten-free. In this instance, it was a hidden ingredient not x-contact that lead to the reaction.

The restaurant assumed the product was safe without further inquiry. Oddly, they are in the final stages of completing a full ingredient list. However, since it was done without written confirmation from the manufacture(s) this situation still would have occurred and the list should now be modified to include this research.

So what are the lessons?

  1. Always be prepared;
  2. ‘Golden Rule of Never No. 2: Never Guess©’

If this restaurant had a properly prepared and researched ingredient list for their staff and the public to reference, this reaction could have been prevented. Key word: “prevented”.

Hard lesson learned.

Dine Confident My Friends,
Paula

Dine Aware LogoWe thank Paula for allowing us to reprint her exchange and we hope this gives you some points for discussion with the proprietors of your favorite eating establishments. Click here for more information about Dine Aware and their programs.

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