Severe allergic reactions of all kinds happen quickly and can be life-threatening. It’s reported that more than one in ten adults in the United States have a food allergy (1), with roughly 150 associated deaths each year (2). Just as alarming, a 2019 study by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) revealed that insurance claims associated with diagnoses of anaphylactic food reactions increased a staggering 377% over a ten year period.(3)
Food allergy related negligence can be a dangerous and costly mistake for hospitality businesses. The majority of laws regulating restaurants are state-specific, and thus how food allergen issues are treated will vary accordingly. For example, New York requires posters with information on food allergy to be placed in all food service establishments, while Illinois is one of only a few states to require at least one manager who has had training in nationally recognized standards for food allergen safety and allergen awareness to be on-duty at all times.(4) A detailed overview of the additional state-specific laws can be found on the FARE website provided in the citations below.
Regardless of state legislation, it is crucial that restaurants and other food service providers take all possible measures to mitigate this increasing risk.
Training Your Staff
Train staff on food allergies including identifying major food allergens, how to prevent cross-contamination of allergens, and what to do if a customer has an allergic reaction. There are many steps that should be taken by the front- and back-of-the-house staff to protect customers with food allergies, such as the following:
- Ensure that tables, chairs, salt and pepper shakers, laminated menus and other table items are clean and sanitized.
- Use a spray bottle solution to clean surfaces when sanitizing. Buckets are not recommended as food proteins could be floating in the water, coming into contact with eating surfaces.
- Educate servers so they are knowledgeable about the ingredients used to prepare each menu item. If a server is new or uninformed, a manager or more experienced wait staff member should handle the table.
- Communicate to managers, chefs and colleagues to heighten awareness around customers with food allergies.
- Select a designated staff member to ensure that all food safety precautions have been met.
Food Preparation Practices
Raise awareness with chefs and cooks on the precautions needed for food allergies, as well as how to properly cook and prepare them. You can reduce cross contact during the food preparation process through the following suggestions:
- Change aprons, wash hands and sanitize all food preparation surfaces.
- Insert a piece of foil between food and a grill surface to act as a barrier.
- Use separate fryers with clean grease. Example: If the guest has a fish allergy, do not cook French fries in the same oil used to fry fish.
- Use separate utensils, plates, glassware etc. that has been washed, sanitized and stored separately in a locked cabinet.
If mistakes are made during dish preparation, start over! It’s not worth putting someone’s life at risk.
Incident Response Measures
Even with the best precautions and processes in place, incidents do occur. In the event that a customer is in distress, do not leave the guest alone. Direct a co-worker to stand outside and meet paramedics at the door. Upon arrival, tell emergency services that the customer is experiencing an allergic reaction and advise them as to whether the customer has injected themselves with an EpiPen to mitigate the symptoms.
A general commercial liability insurance policy will provide a layer of coverage, which can be enhanced by the limits of an excess liability/umbrella policy. In addition, other types of specialized insurance policies such as product recall, trade name restoration and accidental contamination/malicious product tampering coverage, are increasingly available to help fill any coverage gaps or exclusions. These would come into play for incidences of wide spread illness and contamination, rather than individual allergies or food poisoning scenarios.
When it comes to food related liability exposures, proactive risk management is a way of thinking that must permeate the whole organization – from management to front-line employees. Making it a part of all decision-making processes is important to creating a culture that values risk management. Speak to your insurance advisor and explore all of your options when it comes to managing risk.