A Mini-Guide for Handling Food Allergies


There’s no cure for allergies, but these 5 best practices make sure safety is top of mind.

Watery eyes, skin rash, headaches, swelling, trouble breathing. Allergic reactions can go from minor irritation to deadly dangerous, and the culprit can be foods common on almost every restaurant menu. This is why it’s important for operators to promote awareness and safety measures to protect guests.

Food Allergy Canada notes nearly 2.5 million Canadians self-report having at least one food allergy. That’s about one of every 14 people, many under age 18. This means allergies are a growing health issue.

Just a trace can be dangerous

The most common food allergens, known as priority allergens, are peanuts, tree nuts, seafood (including fish, shellfish and crustaceans), eggs, milk, sesame, soy, mustard and wheat. The food additive sulphite, common in dried fruits and vegetables as well as beer, wine and cider, has also been identified by the Canadian government as a priority allergen. For those at risk, consuming even a small amount—as little as a trace transferred by a cross-contaminated prep surface, deep-fryer or serving utensil—can result in a severe allergic reaction.

The most-severe reaction is anaphylactic shock, which strikes rapidly and can cause death. Symptoms may be as general as a headache or anxiety. They also can be extreme:

  • Skin reactions—itchiness, redness, hives and swelling of the face, lips and tongue
  • Respiratory reactions—coughing, wheezing and throat tightness
  • Gastrointestinal reactions—nausea, cramps, vomiting and diarrhea
  • Cardiovascular reactions—paleness, dizziness or passing out

People with severe allergies often carry an epinephrine auto-injector (known by the trade names Allerject, EpiPen or Twinject) with medication to counteract the reaction. Training staffers to recognize allergic reactions, know when to call for medical help and even inject a customer in distress should be part of an emergency plan. To avoid this worst-case scenario, restaurants can manage allergens and provide a safe dining environment.

5 allergen best practices for protecting customers & your operation

1. Make a list. Document each menu item so everyone on the team can access allergen information. To create a list, start with product information cards. About 90 percent of products stocked by Gordon Food Service have a card with allergen and nutrition data, according to Nutrition Resource Centre (NRC) Senior Dietitian Bob Moulson. Manufacturers also provide data. Because formulations sometimes change without notice, it’s a good idea to update product information cards regularly and have manufacturer contact information on file. Here are some ways to deliver accurate, up-to-date information:

  • Display allergen charts. The NRC offers a poster to display in your kitchen. Ask your Sales Representative for one.
  • Keep recipe files. Manual or electronic lists of ingredients in each menu item should be accessible to staff.
  • Assign responsibility. Have someone on your staff in charge of updating menu changes and addressing ingredient questions.

2. Manage risks. From the stockroom to the table, allergen cross-contamination is a consideration. Some general safety rules:

  • Always store foods properly in coolers to avoid allergen cross-contamination.
  • Always wear gloves during prep work and change them after touching priority allergen foods.
  • Keep prep surfaces clean and use fresh cutting boards.
  • Use separate fryers, grills and slicers. French fries cooked in the same oil as seafood can be dangerous to someone with allergies.
  • Cover food prepared in advance and stored.

3. Establish training. With frequent staff turnover, regular reminders about allergen information and your operation’s processes are important. Procedures for cleaning, storage, ingredients, product handling and equipment usage should be covered.

4. Communicate with customers. Provide information about potential allergens on the menu so customers can make informed choices. This includes awareness about food sensitivities and preferences, such as gluten-free, lactose intolerance, dyes, no MSG. Even though these are not allergies, they are a risk for certain diners. “Provide as much information as possible on the menu about ingredients and how the food is prepared,” Moulson says. “Then let the customer decide if it’s within their tolerance level.”

5. Have an emergency plan. Your response to an allergic reaction can be a matter of life or death. Clearly document the process and teach it to your staff:

  • Post instructions for calling an ambulance
  • Put an epinephrine auto-injector in your emergency kit and make sure everyone on staff knows where the kit is located
  • Have a comfort room available if space allows
  • Designate a staffer to remain with the customer until help arrives

Take allergies seriously

It’s impossible to alert every customer to every allergen. Most people are aware of their allergies, and providing clear and accurate information is essential. Being proactive cuts the risk of a restaurant being held responsible for an allergic reaction. Not only does it protect the reputation of your business, but it protects the health of customers and builds confidence and loyalty.


To learn more information on food allergies and food safety, please contact the Nutrition Resource Centre at: nutritionrc@gfs.com or calling 1-866-814-1272

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