Risk Prevention When Serving Customers With Food Allergies

HUB Insurance Robert Fiorito

First it was Chipotle in 2015 and now it’s Panera Bread. These high profile cases go to show that no matter the size and reputation of your restaurant, no one is immune to the many health-related food exposures in the United States today.

Chipotle’s troubles resulted from a food-borne illness outbreak while Panera’s legal dilemma was caused by a severe case of food allergies. Last month, a Massachusetts family filed a lawsuit against Panera Bread after their six year old child with a peanut allergy was hospitalized after finding peanut butter in her grilled cheese. The suit accuses the Panera franchise of negligence since the family notified Panera of the allergy upon placing the order.

Another added risk is the heightened diagnosis and awareness of Celiac Disease and gluten allergies in recent times. People who suffer from this can get very sick from the gluten found in wheat, rye and barley. The illness, which affects 1 in 133 Americans, causes abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea, fatigue, rashes and other problems.

Severe allergic reactions of all kinds happen quickly and can be life-threatening. It’s estimated that one out of every 25 people experiences food allergies, with roughly 150 deaths a year attributed to allergic reactions. It is crucial that food service providers take all possible steps to avoid these dangerous situations. You should also know how to recognize and react accordingly when a person experiences an allergic reaction.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published a list of “The Big 8” foods, which can cause food allergies, along with some examples of affected products:

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• EGGS – mayonnaise and Caesar dressing

• PEANUT – cereals

• WHEAT – gluten, cereals & hydrolyzed proteins

• FISH – surimi and Caesar dressing

• SOY – miso, lecithin, edamame

• MILK – lactose, margarine, whey

• TREE NUT – marzipan, pesto and cereals

• SHELLFISH – oyster, shrimp

A protein found in “The Big 8” foods is responsible for allergic reactions and may cause a food allergy. A food allergy occurs when the immune system attacks certain food proteins. It can impact the whole body, not just the stomach, and includes some or all of the following symptoms: rash, hives, itchy skin, shortness of breath, trouble swallowing or breathing. If not immediately treated, these symptoms can be severe, even resulting in death. When a customer has a food allergy, there are many steps that should be taken by the front- and back-of-the-house staff to protect customers with food allergies.


• 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.


Raise awareness with chefs and cooks on the precautions needed for “The Big 8” food items, as well as how to properly cook and prepare them.

Reduce cross contact during the food preparation process:

• 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.


Even with the best precautions and processes in place, incidents do occur. There are several key identifiers that will alert you to a customer in distress.

• Guest has difficulty breathing or swallowing

• Eyes, face, lips, or tongue begin to swell

• Customer goes into anaphylactic shock. Notify the manager and call 911 immediately.

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.

When it comes to food allergies, food-borne illness and all types of other exposures, proactive risk management is a way of thinking that must permeate the whole organization – from management to frontline employees. Making it a part of all decision-making processes is important to creating a culture that values risk management. Speak to your broker and explore your options when it comes to managing risks for your business.

Robert Fiorito
Robert Fiorito serves as Vice President with HUB International Northeast, a leading global insurance brokerage, where he specializes in providing insurance services to the restaurant industry. As a 25-year veteran and former restaurateur himself, Bob has worked with a wide array of restaurant and food service businesses, ranging from fast-food chains to upscale, “white tablecloth" dining establishments. Robert can be reached at 212-338-2324 or by email at robert.fiorito@hubinternational.com. For more information on HUB, please visit www.hubinternational.com.