oysters food allergies

Food allergies: New survey shines spotlight on shared responsibility

By Food Allergy Canada

Food allergy is one of the leading causes of potentially life-threatening allergic reactions. As a very small amount of a food allergen, when ingested, can cause a serious allergic reaction, avoidance is key to staying safe.

Currently, there is no cure for food allergy. With more than 2.5 million Canadians impacted by food allergies, the question of accommodating diners with food allergies plays on the minds of foodservice professionals across Canada. With the recent release of Food Allergy Canada’s 2016 Dining Out Survey – completed by consumers affected by food allergies across the country – we now know more about the nuances of their dining habits and experiences, and how they manage their food allergies when dining out.

Strengths and challenges

The survey revealed a pattern of strengths and ongoing challenges with respect to risk-reduction and emergency response in foodservice settings. By working together, consumers and foodservice professionals can find new ways forward, as partners in risk-management. To be most effective, this process cannot be viewed as the sole responsibility of just one party. Rather, it calls for shared responsibility, with effort made by both diners with food allergies and foodservice employees. By working together with this shared goal in mind, we can help create a safer dining experience for those at risk.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • 1,446 respondents completed the survey nationwide, with the majority residing in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta. It’s notable that in 57 per cent of all households surveyed, one or more adults was managing at least one food allergy. This figure climbed to 67 per cent for children under the age of 18. Among all respondents with food allergies, the five most common allergens included peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, shellfish/crustaceans, and milk.
  • Among families with one or more children with food allergies, 30-38 per cent reported dining out one to two times per week. This figure is even higher in households with one or more adults with 33-53 per cent eating out at the same frequency. The value of this consumer base is important for the foodservice sector. Diners with food allergies tend to be incredibly brand loyal to restaurants that can accommodate them, rewarding them with their frequent business and referring them to family and friends.
  • Most notably, this survey highlights the importance of risk-management efforts that both diners and restaurants can take. For example, 169 (12 per cent of respondents) reported experiencing at least one severe allergic reaction at a foodservice establishment in the last two years. Amongst these individuals, 73 per cent had told restaurant staff about their food allergies in all cases; however, 16 per cent did not disclose their allergies at all prior to ordering.

These results are telling, revealing a need for better customer awareness and education in terms of disclosure, as well as improved allergen training in foodservice settings. While diners with food allergies need to exercise more caution with self-management practices, the restaurant industry plays an important role in being able to provide safe options to them.

Creating awareness is key

Key restaurant personnel such as managers and chefs as well as wait staff should be familiar with ways of reducing risks. For example, they should know or have access to the ingredient information for each menu item, and know which items may be at risk for cross-contamination. Being able to explain potential risks to a customer can go a long way in helping them make an informed choice and gain their trust in the restaurant. Having clear processes for communications that span the entire dining experience, starting with the diner’s arrival to the completion of their meal, is also ideal. For instance, a welcoming sign posted at the front, or on the menu, inviting diners to speak with a manager if they have food allergies, may be a helpful reminder for guests to disclose food allergies prior to ordering. Servers can also ask guests about food allergies as they place their order.

While respondents had seen some (37 per cent) or significant (13 per cent) improvements in the ways that restaurants handle food allergies in the last five years, they still need help from the foodservice industry to make informed decisions about their dining choices. Respondents stated that their comfort level would increase if restaurants implemented allergy policies and procedures for responding to food allergy requests, declared all menu ingredients, and made all menus and ingredient listings available online. (This can be done for standard menu offerings.) Most consumers are reasonable and don’t expect restaurants to be “free-from” specific allergens or provide “guarantees”. However, respondents would have more confidence in restaurants that trained their staff in both risk-reduction (e.g., cross-contamination) and emergency preparedness.

The need for EpiPens®

Another noteworthy highlight from the survey is, that while 94 per cent of respondents owned an epinephrine auto-injector such as an EpiPen®, only 86 per cent said they always bring their device with them when dining out. The tendency not to always bring an auto-injector to restaurants was most common among adults and teenagers. This data points to the need for more educational efforts directed toward these demographic groups to ensure that they cultivate effective practices that keep them safer when dining out.

As part of a risk-management plan, restaurants might consider the benefits of having stock epinephrine auto-injectors available onsite to be better prepared for allergic emergencies. Stock epinephrine is an epinephrine auto-injector that is not prescribed to a specific individual and can be used in emergencies. Restaurants may wish to carry stock epinephrine as a safety precaution in case of first time reactions when diners are unaware they have a food allergy, or if someone having a reaction requires a second dose, or in cases where a diner may not have their auto-injectors with them. The survey also notes that even if a restaurant carried stock epinephrine, 94 per cent of respondents said they would still carry their own device, as they know that they are ultimately responsible.

By working together, positive change can happen. Although it is not possible to guarantee a zero-risk dining experience, there are reasonable efforts that can be taken to reduce risk. The goal, of course, is a safe and enjoyable dining experience managed with care, and not with fear. By shifting the conversation to risk-management through shared responsibility, everyone benefits, maximizing the chance of comfortable and safe dining experiences for all.

About the author:

Food Allergy Canada educates, supports and advocates for the needs of people living with food allergies and the risk of anaphylaxis. For more details on foodservice training in allergen management, visit foodallergycanada.ca/foodservice.