Communicate with guests about allergens

May 1, 2019


Nearly 32 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.6 million children under the age of 18, according to estimates from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

That’s one in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom. About 40 percent of children with food allergies are allergic to more than one food.

Allergens, and how restaurant companies communicate with guests about them, were a focus at the Nutrition Executive Study Group conference, held mid-March in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The NESG is one of eight executive study groups developed by the National Restaurant Association to engage members responsible for like roles in their organizations (e.g., nutrition, finance, human resources, food safety, supply chain, etc.)

For the NESG conference, nutritionists from nearly 40 restaurant chains and contract foodservice companies gathered for presentations and group discussions on everything from menu labeling regulations to new nutrition software. How companies communicate allergen information was a big topic; Akenya Colbert-Melendez, associate manager, nutrition & allergen, Darden Restaurants, Inc., Orlando, Fla., led the presentation that quickly turned into a group discussion.

While food manufacturers are required to label food items that contain major allergens (the Food and Drug Administration identifies eight major allergens now, and is mulling sesame), restaurants are not required to on the federal level. Allergen disclosure for restaurants however, can be mandated at the state level. Given this, many develop methods to identify allergens so they can answer questions from guests who suffer from ingredient sensitivities. Operators offered tips on communicating this information to guests, to deploy accurate information:

  • If a guest requests ingredient and allergen information by email, make sure whatever document you send is inalterable, such as a PDF. You don’t want to send ingredient information in any form that an unscrupulous customer could change.
  • Be sure to date all internal and customer-facing documents that carry allergen information in case recipes or suppliers change.
  • If your supplier tells you a vetted, allergen-free item is unavailable and arranges a substitute, pull any allergen-free claims on it until the original item is available or until the substitute is vetted.
  • Get the word out about your company’s allergen policies online and through social media, by responding directly to guests’ emails (again, attaching inalterable documents), and through guest-services department reps who can return guests’ calls.
  • Send menu information proactively to allergen watchdog groups so that guests relying on the group for information realize your brand is allergy aware.
  • Create a series of “special menus” from the overall menu that only feature selections that are best suited to meet customers’ top dietary concerns. This helps guests identify in advance dishes that are allergen free, low calorie, low carb, low sodium, etc.
  • While it’s fine to mention that an ingredient was packaged in a plant that is allergen free, never imply your restaurant is allergen free. No restaurant is allergen free.

Several chains mentioned that they have allergen specialists on their nutrition teams. Americans increasingly search the Internet and restaurant menus for “special diets,” according to Nutritionix, a nutrition database management provider, and while not all special diets have to do with allergen tracking, allergens are definitely in the mix. Getting an allergen specialist on board is a growing trend.

What consumers are searching for

According to Nutritionix Track, a fitness tracking app developed and maintained by a team of registered dietitians, consumers search menus and food labels to find options for all kinds of special diets. Shown here is the percentage of Nutritionix Track app users searching for specific diets.


Source: Nutritionix Track app data, Dec. 2018-March 2019

1FODMAP stands for "fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols" (carbs that cause gastrointestinal distress)

What are major food allergens?

While more than 160 foods can cause reactions in people with food allergies, federal law requires manufacturers to label the presence of allergens for any food that contains an ingredient that is or contains protein from a “major food allergen.”

The eight foods identified by the law, and which account for 90 percent of documented allergies, are:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
  • Shellfish (e.g., crab, shrimp, oysters, mussels)
  • Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

These eight foods, and any ingredient that contains protein derived from one or more of them, are designated as “major food allergens” by the Food Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004.


Need allergen training for employees?

The National Restaurant Association offers a ServSafe Allergens certificate program that provides knowledge of procedures for serving people who indicate they have a food allergy. Individuals will learn and have knowledge of the following:

  1. the definition of a food allergy;
  2. the symptoms of an allergic reaction;
  3. the major food allergens;
  4. the dangers of allergens and how to prevent cross-contact;
  5. the proper cleaning methods to prevent allergen contamination;
  6. how and when to communicate to guests and staff about allergens;
  7. the special considerations related to allergens from workstations and self-serve areas;
  8. how to handle special dietary requests;
  9. dealing with emergencies, including allergic reactions;
  10. the importance of food labels;
  11. how to handle food deliveries in relation to allergens;
  12. proper food preparation for guests with food allergies; and
  13. cleaning and personal hygiene considerations to prevent contaminating food with allergens.

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