Spread of assorted nuts in and around a bowl, overlayed with the title " Dining out with food allergies"

How chefs can make it easier for customers to eat out with a food allergy

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) estimates that 2 million people in the UK are living with a diagnosed food allergy.

These allergies usually have no cure, so the only way to manage a condition is to follow a strict diet. That’s why customers need to know they can trust those serving them food when eating out with a food allergy.

For those of us working in the catering and hospitality industries, this is not something to be taken lightly. A series of high-profile cases in recent years highlight just how precarious our line of work can be -- and how carelessness can have tragic consequences. Simply put, if we do not keep stock of our ingredients, we could be dicing with disaster.

Allergic reactions to food can range from aggravating to life-threatening, so it’s important to take a careful approach to every ingredient that you use in your kitchen.

Though it may seem like a pain, ensuring your kitchen is allergy-friendly outweighs having a guilty conscience and potential prison term if things go wrong.

The right way to cater to customers with food allergies

Today,  many people have food allergies, so it’s likely that you’ll get customers who inform waiting staff they have an allergy when they arrive at your restaurant or dining room.

If a customer asks whether a meal on your menu contains a certain food, check all the ingredients within the dish. Let them know which ingredients you use to cook the dish, as well as those used to thicken the sauce and make a garnish or salad dressing (even the oil you cook it in).

It’s a good idea to keep copies of your allergens list in handy places to help save you time and make you look more professional. Always respond with 100% certainty and never guess.

If you cook with or serve any ready-made food or drink, make a record of it. Separate and label all the different foods you use to help keep track of things.

Give detailed information in the name or description of dishes on the menu, especially if they include the potential allergens such as nuts or sesame seeds. Remember to update the menu when recipes change, as this will allow people with certain allergies to spot which dishes contain which food.

Some customers who have prepared ahead may give you “chef cards” that list the foods they are insensitive to. Many of you will already use these, but if not, you can see what an allergy chef card looks like here.

Being aware of contamination

Even if all the foods you use are properly labelled and you have adequately relayed allergen information to the customer, it’s still possible for cross-contamination to occur in food preparation. Contamination is likely in; 

  • fried foods (reused oil in deep fat fryers)
  • grilled foods (meat & fish contamination)
  • salad station (if you don’t change gloves/bowls/utensils)

Separate kitchen utensils, pots, pans and chopping boards should be used to prepare your meal. Most kitchens have designated equipment for this purpose.

If you’ve been asked to specially prepare a dish that does not contain a certain food, make sure work surfaces and equipment have been thoroughly cleaned first. Make sure your team wash their hands thoroughly before preparing the dish to avoid cross-contamination.

Which ingredients can cause a problem?

The Food Standards Agency introduced laws which require wine bars, cafes and restaurants to:

  • provide allergen information to the customer for both pre-packed and non-prepacked food or drink
  • handle and manage food allergens adequately
  • specify if the food contains any ingredients that appear in the EU’s fourteen ‘top allergens’ list.

Below are the top fourteen food allergens. Often these ingredients can be integral components of some of your recipes, so we’ve provided alternatives that you can use instead of the allergen.

1) Nuts

Found in sauces, desserts, crackers, bread, ice cream, marzipan, ground almonds, and nut oils.

Alternatives: chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin and squash seeds, watermelon seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, papaya seeds

2) Peanuts

Found in sauces, cakes, and desserts, as well as in groundnut oil and peanut flour.

Alternatives: Seeds (roasted pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.), beans (roasted soy beans, peas, chickpeas), pretzels (bear in mind these are usually made with wheat and/or sesame).

3) Eggs

Found in cakes, mousses, meringues, sauces, pasta, quiche, and some meat products. Don’t forget foods containing mayonnaise or brushed with egg.

Alternatives: Applesauce, mashed banana, vegan egg replacer, vinegar and baking soda, arrowroot powder.

4) Milk

Found in yoghurt, cream, cheese, butter, and milk powders. Also check for foods glazed with milk.

Alternatives: Soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, oat milk, rice milk, cashew milk, macadamia milk.

5) Fish

Found in some salad dressings, pizzas, relishes and fish sauce. You may also find fish in some soy and Worcestershire sauces.

Alternatives: Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, flaxseed oil, canola oil, tofu, soy milk, sesame butter (tahini).

6) Crustaceans

Such as prawns, lobster, scampi, crab, and shrimp paste.

Alternatives: Walnuts, flaxseed oil, canola oil, Brussel sprouts, spinach, kale.

7) Molluscs

These include mussels, whelks, squid, land snails, and oyster sauce.

Alternatives: Grass-fed beef, organic chicken, beans, free-range eggs, lentils.

8) Cereals containing gluten

Also check foods containing flour, such as bread, pasta, cakes, pastry, meat products, sauces, soups, batter, stock cubes, breadcrumbs, and foods dusted with flour.

Alternatives: Buckwheat, some types of oats, gluten-free cereals.

9) Celery

This includes celery stalks, leaves and seeds and celeriac. Also look out for celery in salads, soups, celery salt, and some meat products.

Alternatives: Lovage, pak choi, jicama, broccoli stalk.

10) Lupin

Lupin seeds and flour are found in some types of bread and pastries.

11) Mustard

Including liquid mustard, mustard powder and mustard seeds. These can be found in salad dressings, marinades, soups, sauces, curries, and meat products.

Alternatives: Mayonnaise, horseradish, wasabi, vinaigrette with a non-mustard seasoning.

12) Sesame seeds

Found in bread, breadsticks, tahini, houmous, and sesame oil.

Alternatives: Remove from recipes altogether.

13) Soya

As tofu, tempeh or beancurd, soya flour and textured soya protein. Also found in some ice cream, sauces, desserts, meat products, and vegetarian products.

Alternatives: Soy oil can be substituted for another oil, including canola oil or olive oil.

14) Sulphites

Found in meat products, fruit juice drinks, dried fruit and vegetables, wine, and beer.

What to do if someone has a severe allergic reaction

1 in 1000 people in the UK are at risk of developing a serious, life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Such reactions are usually rapid in onset and can be caused by any allergen -- not just those found in food.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • feeling faint or lightheaded
  • breathing difficulties
  • wheezing
  • a fast heartbeat
  • confusion and anxiety
  • clammy skin
  • collapsing or losing consciousness

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. If you think someone in your establishment is having an anaphylactic reaction (also known as anaphylactic shock), make sure you:

  1. Use an adrenaline auto-injector if the person has one and if you know how it works.
  2. Call 999 immediately.
  3. Remove the trigger on the auto-injector if possible.
  4. Lie them down flat (unless they’re unconscious, pregnant, or have breathing issues).
  5. If there’s no improvement, give them another injection after 5-15 mins (using a second auto-injector if one is available).

Hopefully, it won’t come to this, but knowing what to do in the case of an anaphylactic reaction can literally save a life.

For more on the fast-moving world of catering and hospitality, stay tuned to the weekly Blue Arrow blog.

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