Making Your Restaurant Allergen List: Tips for Chefs and Managers
According to FARE (the Food Allergy Research & Education network and the largest private funder of food allergy research in the US), food allergies and intolerances impact 85 million Americans. Food allergy reactions send someone to the ER every 3 minutes on average - and that number is on the rise.
Allergens can be a literal life-or-death situation.
Even non-life-threatening allergic reactions can cause serious harm and discomfort.
It’s no wonder then, that when a party of diners includes just one person with a food allergy, that person usually has the decision-making power to ‘veto’ any restaurant without an allergen list or allergy-friendly options.
Here’s how you can make your restaurant allergen-friendly with a comprehensive and accurate restaurant allergen list and allergen statement.
What are allergens?
An allergen is any substance that causes an allergic reaction. Restaurants should be primarily concerned with food allergens: the foods that can cause an allergic reaction.
An allergic reaction is triggered when a person’s immune system reacts to certain proteins in food.
The ingestion of food usually causes these reactions, but the proximity or touch of food can also trigger severe cases - as is the case with some peanut allergy sufferers.
Allergic reactions to food can range in severity from mild swelling to rashes and nausea, to anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergy reaction, which can prove fatal.
In addition to people who suffer from allergies to certain foods or substances, you may also encounter people who have an intolerance or hypersensitivity (lactose intolerance) or a condition that may make the consumption of an allergen harmful (celiac disease).
The major food allergens
While there are 160+ foods identified to cause food allergies, the FDA recognizes eight major food allergens that must be labeled in the US. These are the allergies most likely to cause severe or life-threatening reactions and account for over 90% of all documented food allergies in the US.
The eight major food allergens recognized by the FDA in the US are:
- Tree nuts
The FASTER act signed into law this year will see sesame added as the ninth allergen in 2023.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) requires labeling for the 10 most common allergens:
- Sesame seeds
- Tree nuts
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recognizes 11 priority food allergens:
- Crustaceans and mollusks
- Sesame seeds
- Tree Nuts
- Wheat and triticale
The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) recognizes 14 major allergens:
- Cereals containing gluten
- Sulfur dioxide and sulfites
- Tree nuts
Gluten and restaurant allergen lists
Gluten is a protein found in cereal grains, including wheat (which is recognized as a major allergen in the US) and other grains like barley, rye, and triticale.
While gluten itself isn’t an allergen, the FDA (and equivalent bodies internationally) does have strict restrictions on the term ‘gluten-free’ in packaged foods. The packages have to contain less than 20 ppm (parts per million) to be classed as gluten-free. This is the same in many parts of the world, including Canada and the UK. FSANZ requires gluten free food to contain “no detectable gluten”, while food containing 200ppm of gluten can be labelled Low Gluten.
Restaurants in the US should be consistent with FDA’s definition when labeling items as gluten-free on their menu.
Why an allergen list is important
There are two key parts of the business case for a restaurant allergen list. In many jurisdictions, having an allergen list (or at least being able to quickly and clearly notify customers of any allergens on your menu) is a legal requirement.
It also benefits business financially. With one in every ten adults (and one in every 13 children) having allergies in the US, there is huge buying-power fuelling the growth in allergy-friendly and free-from foods and labeling.
Equally, 200,000 people in the US alone require emergency medical care for allergic reactions to food each year, and word travels fast. If a severe allergic reaction is triggered by food in your restaurant that wasn’t properly labelled for allergens, you can expect negative Google, Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews, and potentially even coverage in the local news - resulting in a loss of business.
Legal requirements in many jurisdictions
The US legislation around allergen labeling, FALCPA (Food Allergen Labeling And Consumer Protection Act of 2004) only applies to pre-packaged foods - not meals at restaurants.
However, the FDA Food Code does require that restaurants and retail food service managers:
- Be aware of the serious nature of food allergies (including allergic reactions, anaphylaxis, and death)
- Know the eight major food allergens
- Understand food allergen ingredient identities and labeling
- Avoid cross-contact during food preparation and service
As well as ensure employees’ food safety training includes food allergy awareness.
Additionally, some states including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Virginia, have passed state-level allergen legislation requiring restaurants to:
- Display food allergy awareness information in employee areas
- Ask customers (via menus or menu boards) to inform the restaurant if anyone in their party has a food allergy
- Provide certified food allergy training to management and senior staff
Other countries do have requirements for allergen lists to be available in restaurants:
- FSANZ in Australia & New Zealand require that all food is labeled with allergens. If the food isn’t in packaging, the information must be displayed with the food.
- The FSA in the UK advises food businesses to provide allergen information in writing, either on a menu, board, information pack, or via a written notice.
- In Canada, there is no requirement for restaurants to list priority food allergens for their menu items.
Build trust with customers
Diners with allergies are - understandably - reluctant to eat at restaurants without adequate allergen labeling.
Restaurants without an up-to-date and accurate allergen list and allergy commitment statement available could also lose out on customers with allergies and groups of diners that include just one allergy-sufferer.
What else you can do for allergens in restaurants
While there is no requirement for it, having allergen information readily available in the form of an allergen list is good practice.
Making your allergen list available online in the form of an allergen menu, gives diners the opportunity to check the availability of allergy-friendly foods before they make a purchasing decision.
Provide an allergy commitment statement to reassure potential customers with allergies that they are dining in safe hands.
Train staff, chefs, and restaurateurs to pay attention to how gluten-free or allergen-free foods are prepared, and to avoid cross-contamination with other foods.
How to make your restaurant allergen list
Have an allergen list available for customers to view. Increase bookings and build trust by making accurate and detailed menu information available before patrons even step foot in the door.
Creating and maintaining a restaurant allergen list can be a big undertaking. First, identify which allergenic ingredients are present in each dish. Then, regularly maintain that index of allergens to ensure that it’s up to date.
Manually make a restaurant allergen list
Some chefs and restaurant managers maintain a restaurant allergen list manually with pen and paper or in a spreadsheet.
Like any manual process, this is a time-consuming method with risks of human error. Spreadsheets and paper lists are also difficult to maintain and keep up-to-date with menu changes.
Especially in today’s world of supply chain shortages, you’ll need to make substitutions which will alter the allergy content of a dish.
Use restaurant allergen list software
Using MarketMan's digital cookbook feature, it’s easy to understand which ingredients go into each and every dish, so you can quickly create dynamic allergen reports wherever and whenever you need them.
Flag ingredients which contain (or may contain) the eight major allergens, and dynamically link ingredients to each dish and menu item, so you can track allergens through the system.
Any time a dish is added or updated with an allergen-containing ingredient, the allergen label will automatically populate on the menu.
Access your restaurant allergen list via computer, tablet, or phone, so staff and customers have up-to-the-moment information about each menu item.
As allergens can be life-threatening, it is critical to limit who has access to update your allergen list. Give permissions only to specific users who can edit allergen information.
Use the cookbook feature for employee allergen training, proving compliance with allergen labelling laws, and keeping diners safe and happy.
Schedule a demo to learn about how MarketMan can help you create and maintain an allergen list today.