By Andrea Lobel Shainblum
When Katrina Guy took the first bite of her meal at a popular Toronto restaurant, she immediately knew that something was very wrong. She’d told her server about her fish and shellfish allergies, and was reassured that her meal hadn’t been fried with her allergens, but despite that, her lips and cheeks began to swell. As Guy explains, the server “thought I was asking if the dish was cooked with fish at the same time,” but in fact, while her meal had been deep fried separately, the same fryer had recently been used to prepare fish. “I wish the server had actually gone to double check with the kitchen about the fry risk,” she said.
Guy is far from alone. According to AllerGen NCE, Inc., approximately one in 13 Canadians, or 2.5 million people, report having one or more food allergies, the reactions for which can be rapid and life-threatening. These statistics highlight the need for allergy risk-reduction strategies across the foodservice industry.
In the months to come, I’ll be writing about food allergies as well as intolerances such as celiac disease, and will describe a number of risk-reduction strategies. These will include methods to reduce allergen cross-contact, preparing allergy risk-management and emergency response plans, tips to improve allergy communication between front and back of house, and many other topics.
But first, why enhance and fine-tune food allergy training, when a module is often included as part of standard food safety training courses? Here are five key reasons why making a special effort to do so is smart business:
Reducing the risk of allergic reactions and lawsuits
The safety of a restaurant’s customers is, of course, always at top of mind for management. First and foremost, no foodservice establishment wants to be responsible for inadvertently harming a diner. But existing alongside this very serious concern is the additional risk of litigation. When Simon Pierre Canuel was accidentally served a food he was violently allergic to at a Sherbrooke, Quebec restaurant in May 2016, he suffered near-fatal anaphylaxis and went into a coma. The waiter was arrested, though charges of criminal negligence did not move forward due to lack of evidence. While this is perhaps an extreme example, it brought the spectre of criminal negligence charges into the picture on the Canadian landscape, and the civil lawsuit is ongoing. This too is a scenario that restaurants would much rather try to prevent in the first place.
A growing allergy market
On a more positive note, according to Euromonitor International, the Canadian allergy and gluten-free market is growing 4 per cent annually, and was worth $167.6 million in 2010. This means that working to accommodate guests with food allergies and sensitivities is a way to capture the attention of consumers who are very attuned to restaurants that go the extra mile for them. This is also a market willing to pay for food products that meet its needs.
A brand-loyal clientele
As a corollary to the last point, allergic customers are not merely more likely to frequent an establishment that goes out of its way to make meals safer – but they are vocal on social media, often becoming the restaurant’s most enthusiastic promoters. I count myself among these brand-loyal customers; when I find a restaurant with food allergy best-practices in place, that is where I dine, bring friends, and host special events.
Good publicity and brand positioning
Once an allergy risk-reduction plan is implemented in a restaurant, management may opt to make it part of their marketing and advertising strategy. Properly promoted, allergy accommodations can also capture the attention of media outlets, as in the case of Montreal restaurant Zero8, which has made avoidance of eight of the top allergens its raison d’être. While not all restaurants will opt to eliminate major allergens, those with a well-tuned allergy risk-reduction plan and fully trained staff are well positioned to integrate this fact into their advertising if they choose.
Being ahead of the curve
Going above and beyond basic training in allergy safety and food handling requirements is not yet a widespread practice in the foodservice landscape, though this may change with time. In the interim, this presents an excellent opportunity for forward-thinking restaurant management to lead the way in the industry — both accommodating diners with allergies and being viewed as progressive through their initiatives. And by making a real effort to address a growing health issue affecting nearly 8 per cent of the customers that walk through their doors, restaurants across Canada are not only demonstrating the willingness to meet this challenge and be good corporate citizens, but investing in their bottom line.
About the author:
Andrea Lobel Shainblum, Ph.D. is President of Allercom Allergy Consulting, Inc. Allercom trains restaurants, hotels, and other organizations Canada-wide in allergy risk-reduction on-site and via live webinar, and is the exclusive provider of the AllergyAudit™ System. Same-week service available in the Montreal-Toronto corridor. For more information, call 613-899-1862, visit www.allercom.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.