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Be allergy aware

Catering to customers with special dietary needs is becoming more common for NZ food services, so embrace the change and do all you can to accommodate all of your customers requirements. No doubt your business will benefit from this good will.

ensure you serve safe food to customers with allergies

What are allergies and intolerances?

Most people working in the food service industry will have already come across a number of common food allergies and intolerances. These include gluten intolerance, peanut allergy and lactose intolerance. Although they have similar symptoms, food intolerance and allergies have different causes. Food intolerance occurs when the body is unable to properly digest certain foods, whereas food allergies occur when the body reacts to a certain food with an immune response.  

The way we deal with these different reactions needs to be different as well; while even the tiniest trace of some foods can be deadly to someone allergic to them, those with an intolerance are unlikely to be affected by a minute amount of the food.  It's important you get as much information from your customer as possible, so you can take the most appropriate precautions.

If your body can’t digest a particular type of food, this can make you feel unwell – this is food intolerance. Food intolerances are not usually life-threatening, although they can be extremely uncomfortable. Symptoms of food intolerance can occur immediately or be delayed up to 20 hours after eating and can include nausea, bloating, vomiting and diarrhea.  Food intolerances are usually dose-dependent where sufferers may be able to tolerate a tiny amount.  Unlike those with allergies where even the tiniest amount can cause a reaction.

If you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly attacks a substance, usually a protein, found in particular foods. Fortunately, food allergies are rare (only 1–2% of the world’s population are affected), although they can be very severe, and in some cases cause death. The best way to avoid a food allergen is to avoid the food or foods that contain it.

Some foods are more likely to cause an allergic reaction than others. Here are some examples:

  • Peanuts and peanut products (including peanut oil)
  • Nuts from trees (including walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds)
  • Wheat and wheat products
  • Fish and seafood products
  • Eggs and egg products
  • Milk and milk products
  • Sesame seeds and sesame seed products.

As even the tiniest amount of allergen can cause a reaction, it is extremely important that we know what is in the food we’re offering.  For this and many other reasons, we recommend you develop standardised recipes for your menu items and list all possible allergens on those recipes.  Check the ingredient lists of any products you use for any hidden allergens as well. The Allergen Bureau provides a useful sheet listing hidden allergens in manufactured foods.

Allergy NZ has some very useful tips for food service staff (both front of house and kitchen) to help you manage the risks around food allergies.

Remember, if you're unsure about what's in the food or can't guarantee the safety of your customer, be open and honest and let them know.

While coeliac disease is a food intolerance, it differs from most other intolerances in that even the smallest amount of gluten can produce a reaction.  For people with coeliac disease it's important you don't use any ingredients in their foods that contain gluten - which is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats and any food product using derivatives of these grains.  Coeliac NZ has some good tips for food services to help you provide gluten free meals and also have The Dining Out Programme: gluten free accreditation for NZ food services that want to provide assurance to their gluten free diners that certain standards have been met.

A few tips for managing allergy risks

Write detailed standardised recipes that contain lists of possible allergens:

  • If we change the ingredients in one of our dishes or products, we must make sure we also update the ingredient list or labels provided to customers
  • Check all ingredients in the dish/recipe (and any ingredients they contain) as well as any garnish. We then need to inform customers if we’ve prepared food in something that may have contained an allergen, such as an oil that has already been used.

We may not always be aware of ingredient substitutions made by our suppliers. For that reason, the following points are essential to ensure the foods we serve are safe:

Keep accurate written details about all the ingredients of prepared food, as well as pre-packed foods

  • Ensure ingredient lists are up to date
  • Demand up to date ingredient lists from suppliers
  • When changing suppliers of foods, demand ingredient lists and update recipe details.

Keep the kitchen clean, tidy and organised:

  • Clean all surfaces and utensils that may have been used to prepare foods containing allergens
  • Store allergenic foods in separate containers, separated from other foods
  • Use paper towels, rather than cloth towels, for drying hands.

Make sure all staff are aware of the serious consequences of food allergies, and that they receive regular training.

If there is any doubt about whether a food contains even a small amount of an allergen, tell the customer – don’t guess!

Know what you're serving by writing good recipes