How to cater to customers with food allergies

By Beatrice Povolo
June 12, 2013
How your restaurant can cater to customers with food allergies

With food allergies on the rise, more and more consumers are looking for safer options when dining out. In Canada today, there are over 2.5 million*people who report having at least one food allergy. That’s about one in every 14 Canadians. Since there is currently no cure for food allergies, these people must avoid their allergens in order to prevent a reaction, which in some cases can be potentially life-threatening (known as anaphylaxis).

As the number of people affected by food allergies increases, dining out can become more challenging for individuals at risk, as well as for the restaurant and foodservice staff that serve them. Although the responsibility of managing food allergies lies primarily with the food-allergic customer, they need the support of the foodservice industry to ensure they make informed and safe choices.

Understanding how to respond to consumer concerns and questions is key in managing food allergies and consumer expectations. As a result, ensuring your staff is well prepared to deal with food allergy requests is a responsibility that must not be taken lightly.

To help you better educate your staff, here are some important things to consider when developing your internal allergy policies and procedures:

Take allergies seriously

Your staff needs to understand the importance of food allergies and that all requests need to be taken seriously. Give them information on common allergens (e.g. milk, fish, nuts) and how to safely manage them during the food preparation and serving process.

Provide access to essential information

Outline your allergy policies and procedures clearly to all staff and identify their roles and responsibilities. This includes providing access to complete ingredient information for all your products or menu items. Staff should know who to ask for this information and where it is located on premises. This information must always be available to allergic consumers when inquiring about your food selections, so they can make an informed choice. Remember, all ingredient files or charts must be kept up-to-date at all times.

Identify and manage potential risks

There can be many possible allergy-related risks when preparing and serving food. However, understanding what the risks are and where they can occur is crucial for any foodservice establishment. This is especially important when dealing with ingredients and the potential for cross-contamination.

Here are some tips to consider:


  • Make sure you have complete and up-to-date ingredient lists from suppliers
  • Check all ingredients on pre-packaged foods
  • Do not substitute or add ingredients not in the approved recipe
  • Identify all potential risks in the flow of food (from receiving to serving)

Cross-contamination – Identify how it can occur

  • Human contact (e.g. hands, gloves)
  • Food contact (allergen to non-allergens)
  • Utensils and surfaces
  • Grills, fryer, slices


Within any establishment, clear and consistent communication is essential. This applies to both staff and consumers. It is important that all staff is familiar with your internal allergen management process and specifically how information is provided to the consumer. This requires setting up a process for relaying consumer questions and concerns to senior staff (e.g. manager or chef) and in turn, providing allergic consumers with information they need to select a safe menu option or product. The main point of contact for any allergy-related inquiry should always be the chef or manager.

Be prepared for an emergency

Even though allergic customers are responsible for managing their allergies and being prepared to treat a reaction, it’s important for staff to be able to identify and respond in the event of an emergency. Every establishment should have a documented emergency plan and this should be shared with all staff. The plan must include directions to staff to call 9-1-1 or local emergency services as soon as possible. It is important that the allergic individual receive epinephrine (eg. EpiPen®,Twinject® or Allerject™ auto-injector) immediately.

Managing food allergies can be a challenging task in the food industry, but with the proper processes and strategies in place, you can do your part in helping to minimize the risks for allergic consumers in your establishments. Your allergic customers will really appreciate the effort you took to keep them safer.

Where to find more information

*Overall Prevalence of Self-reported Food Allergy in Canada, L. Soller et al, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (2012). doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2012.06.029

About the author:

Beatrice Povolo, is the director of marketing and communications for Anaphylaxis Canada.

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