Safely Dining With Allergies

Food allergy friendly restaurants

(RxWiki News) For people with who have food allergies or sensitivities, eating at restaurants can be a health hazard. Even when the staff and chefs are accommodating, cross contamination can still happen in the kitchen, which can have serious health consequences for the diner.

An increasing number of people each year are diagnosed with food allergies or sensitivities or are adopting diets that minimize certain food categories, such as gluten-free diets. As more and more diners have special dietary needs, restaurants must learn how to satisfy all their customers. To that end, a research team is serving up improved food allergy education for future restaurant managers and staff.

"Visit restaurants that meet your health needs."

A recent national study showed that more than 40% of people who have a seafood allergy, one of the most common allergies in the U.S., have experienced an allergic reaction from eating in a restaurant. This high percentage of allergic reactions may be caused by hidden allergens in sauces or from mixed dishes coming in contact with a safe food item, notes Junehee Kwon, associate professor of hospitality management and dietetics at Kansas State University.

Kwon has teamed with Kevin Sauer, assistant professor of hospitality management and dietetics at Kansas State, on a project to develop food allergy education materials for the hospitality management and dietetics fields.

"Consumers with allergies are frustrated," says Kwon. "They are actually putting their lives in danger by buying and consuming food prepared by someone else."

The investigators believe food allergy safety works both ways. Customers need to make sure they clearly communicate what their specific needs are to the restaurant staff. But if restaurant staff, from the wait staff to the kitchen crew, do not know how to properly respond to those needs, then diners with food allergies can't be sure what they order is allergen-free and won't put their lives at risk if they eat it.

For example, knowing that cross-contact has occurred (such as a serving utensil that came in contact with seafood and then was used to serve up a specially prepared dish for a food allergy patron) may be difficult to determine and, perhaps more so, to declare to the customer. Additionally, restaurant employees may not often understand the true risks of food allergies for their customers.

As part of their research, the investigators are developing educational materials to assist students studying hospitality management and dietetics to be more proactive in working with customers who have food allergies. "Learning more about how food allergies can really impact someone's life can motivate these future managers to take food allergy precautions more seriously," Kwon adds.

To motivate students, the researchers plan to use video testimonials from individuals who have food allergies. These videos are meant to appeal to the students' emotions and show how food allergies have affected someone's life.

For their preliminary data for the project, the investigators created a short testimonial video and measured students' attitudes toward food allergies before and after watching it. The results showed an increase in how the students perceived how severe the risks associated with food allergies can be as well as an increase in their self-reported motivation to learn more.

Kwon and Sauer plan to collect more testimonials, record them and incorporate them into new food allergy education materials. In the future, they hope to expand their scope to work directly with employees and managers currently working in the food service industry.

The project is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

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Review Date: 
October 12, 2011