10:30 AM CDT on Tuesday, September 23, 2008
With one in 25 Americans – or 12 million people – making special menu requests because of food allergies, there's an increased need for updated and practical guidelines for restaurants.
In response, the National Restaurant Association has revised its food-service training guide, "Welcoming Guests With Food Allergies."
Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition policy for the association, says restaurant employees aren't the only people who can use the revised guide. Customers coping with food allergies can learn a lot about restaurant operations.
"Often, looking at the menu descriptions is not enough," Ms. Weiss says. "We strongly encourage communicating a food allergy to the restaurant staff so it can be addressed right up front. All ingredients should be disclosed. There are no secret sauces or secret thickeners."
Take action and ask
While some food allergies are more serious than others, all food allergies and intolerances demand serious attention when dining out. For instance, if you're allergic to shrimp, don't order jambalaya. But eggs, milk and nuts can sneak into recipes without warning. So it's imperative to step up the detective work when navigating a restaurant menu.
Your first line of defense is the server, who should be able to describe menu items and their ingredients in detail. However, this is no time to guess what's in a dish. If the server doesn't know for sure, ask to talk to the manager or the chef. And if there's a question about a product, such as a sauce or stock or type of frying oil, ask to see the container's ingredient label.
Kitchen staff should be trained to avoid cross-contaminating foods with potential allergens. But ask about specifics. For example, are mixers thoroughly cleaned between preparation of recipes with and without nuts?
•Chefs should be trained to prepare allergen-free versions of dishes upon request. But you should also know what's possible and what's not. If the gumbo is made with oysters, the chef can't just whip one up without oysters.
•Chefs should not add a mystery ingredient just to be creative without listing it on the menu or telling the wait staff. Clearly communicate a list of allergens to heighten concern in the kitchen.
•Chefs should avoid casual product substitutions such as using peanut oil one day and canola oil the next. Even if you've safely eaten a dish for years, check to make sure that ingredients haven't changed.
Restaurant staff should be aware that even a minuscule amount of food can set off a severe allergic reaction. For example, some people are allergic to mollusks but not to fin fish. So make sure to ask what kind of seafood is used to make the seafood sauce served with the fish.
The food allergy guide can be downloaded at no charge from www.foodallergy.org/welcomingguests.html.