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Food allergies: What food handlers need to know before serving customers

Food allergies are a growing health issue. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, one in 25 adults and one in 13 children in the United States suffer from food allergies. At the present time there is no cure for a food allergy. Avoidance is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction.

When a person eats a food he or she is allergic to, a reaction may move swiftly through the body causing a range of symptoms. Symptoms can include:

  • Swelling of the lips, tongue and throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of consciousness

When they dine away from home, people with food allergies must rely on food service staff. Staff must provide them with accurate information about ingredients so they can make an informed decision about what to order. Incorrect or incomplete information puts these individuals at risk for an allergic reaction.

Planning and education are the keys to safely serving a guest who has food allergies. All food service staff, including managers, servers and kitchen staff, must:

  • Be familiar with food allergy issues.
  • Know the proper way to answer guests' questions.
  • Know what to do if an allergic reaction occurs.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is an immune system response to a food protein that the body mistakenly believes is harmful. Once the immune system decides that a particular food is harmful, it creates specific antibodies to fight it. The immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, including histamine, in order to protect the body thus triggering an allergic reaction.

What are major food allergens?

While more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions, the nine most common account for 90 percent of all food allergic reactions. A major food allergen is defined as one of the following foods or food groups, or used as an ingredient:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Fish (bass, flounder, cod, etc.)
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans
  • Crustacean shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp, etc.)
  • Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.)
  • Sesame (ninth major allergen and must be included on food labels by January 1, 2023)

Tips to prevent food allergen reactions in food facilities

  1. The manager should conduct food allergy training.
    • Ensure both new hires and existing employees are prepared.
    • Review the food allergy management plan periodically.
  2. Keep a list of ingredients for all menu items.
  3. Have a plan to handle questions and special requests from guests with food allergies.

    • Have at least one person on duty, ideally the manager, who can handle questions and special requests from guests with food allergies.
    • Other staff members should know who that individual is and should direct questions about food allergies to that person.
  4. Employees should understand how cross-contact can occur.
    • Keep in mind that improper garnishing or handling of a dish can contaminate an otherwise safe meal.
  5. If a mistake occurs with the special order, the only acceptable way to correct the situation is to have the kitchen staff discard the incorrect order and remake it.
  6. If a guest is having an allergic reaction, call 911 and get medical help immediately!

Are you looking for food allergen training?

Food allergen safety for food service employees

This online module from Serve It Up Safely covers the topic of food allergens. Purchase the module for $25.

Kathy Brandt, Extension educator and Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2021

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