Food Safety Tips to Reduce Allergic Reactions in Quick Serve Restaurants

Food allergies are common in the United States, affecting 32 million people. An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system reacts to a foreign substance. Allergens can enter the body via something you eat, breath in, inject, or touch. In severe cases, an allergic reaction can cause low blood pressure, trouble breathing, and asthma symptoms. Many allergic reactions to foods occur in restaurants. One in three people with food allergies report having had an allergic reaction in a restaurant. Additionally, a CDC study found that only 44.4% of restaurant staff members had received training on food allergy protocol. 

Effective food labeling in both customer and employee facing materials will decrease instances of a customer accidentally ordering something containing an allergen, and increase staff vigilance in preventing cross contamination during order prep. Even trace amounts of allergen food proteins can trigger a serious immune reaction. Effective training of allergy risks and procedures is necessary to decrease the risk of an allergic reaction to customers.

Make sure your staff know which foods pose the highest risk for customers with food allergies by hanging Squadle’s free “Big 8” Food Allergens poster in your food prep area. Tip: coordinate these allergen symbols/colors with menu item symbols, so that customers & employees are all on the same page for allergy safety. Download it here!

In this blog we discuss tips for reducing occurrences of severe allergic reactions in restaurants. By doing so, you can build a reputation of a high degree of food safety and customer service in your establishment. Establishing restaurant practices to address food allergies ensures that all guests can be served safely.

Alert QSR Staff and Customers to Potential Allergens

It is important that restaurants be transparent about menu item ingredients and cooking processes, so that customers can make informed decisions regarding the safety of their food. There are many methods for providing customers with this information. As a starting point, the CDC recommends keeping full ingredient lists for all menu items on hand. These lists can be examined by staff or customers to field questions related to allergens. If some menu items are prepared with prepackaged ingredients, The Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act compels third party suppliers to package goods with complete ingredient labels, which should be incorporated into your restaurant’s broader ingredient lists.

An increasing number of quick serve restaurants including McDonald’s and Panera Bread have adapted the practice of labeling allergens directly on menus. This reduces the number of questions asked to staff. 90% of all food allergic reactions are caused by the following foods, known as the “Big 8”: 

  • Milk
  • Fish 
  • Soybeans 
  • Tree nuts 
  • Peanuts 
  • Eggs
  • Shellfish 
  • Wheat

These are the allergens to focus on when labeling menu items. Some restaurants use icons known as indicator symbols next to menu items to alert allergens, such as a graphic of a peanut or wheat. Beyond preventing anaphylactic reactions, you can also use these symbols to indicate menu item alignment with common diets such as gluten-free or dairy-free. 

Finally, quick serve restaurants can avoid some liability in the event that an allergic reaction does occur by labeling menus with an allergen disclaimer. This statement should indicate the presence of allergens in the kitchen and acknowledge the risk of cross-contamination. For example, an allergen disclaimer might read: “Food Allergy Notice: Please be advised that food prepared here may contain or come into contact with wheat, soybean, nuts and shellfish.”

Prevent Cross Contamination in QSR Kitchens

Allergens can cause severe reactions even if ingested in trace amounts. It is important to implement allergy protocols for food preparation that focus on decreasing the risk of cross contamination between ingredients. One effective method for reducing cross-contamination in the kitchen is to designate an area for allergen-free food preparation. However, a CDC study found that many restaurants did not prepare allergen-free food on separate equipment or surfaces. 

Proteins from allergens can remain on surfaces even after they are wiped clean. Using a separate food prep area for allergen-free food provides the highest degree of food safety. The same goes for using dedicated allergen-free cooking equipment such as stand mixers, blenders, and cutting boards. These allergy friendly surfaces and equipment should be clearly labeled for easy identification. Color coding allergen-free utensils and tools is one way to quickly identify safe equipment. In kitchens where it is not feasible to designate allergen-free items, surfaces and equipment should be thoroughly sanitized before preparing food items. QSR’s can use digital checklists to ensure proper cleaning and sanitation tasks are followed.

TIP: Deep fryers are a common culprit of cross contamination because many foods may be cooked in the same oil, leaving potentially harmful proteins behind. Restaurants may address this concern by designating each fryer to one type of food. Where this strategy is not applicable, allergy-free food should be fried in a clean pan.

How to Train QSR Employees on Food Allergy Protocol

Allergy training for restaurants is an essential part of maintaining high food safety standards. As mentioned previously, less than half of foodservice staff reported having food allergy training. Those who did receive training reported that it often lacked important information such as how to react if someone has an allergic reaction. Some managers and staff falsely believed that people could safely ingest a small amount of an allergen. Poor training perpetuates these potentially dangerous misconceptions. 

In food preparation, staff should be trained on what the “Big 8” food allergens are, the ways they are incorporated into the restaurant’s food, and how to identify cross contamination risks in the kitchen. In customer interactions, staff should be trained to identify and document customer allergies. For example, if a customer asks to remove an ingredient from a menu item, the employee should ask, “is that for allergy or preference?”. If the customer indicates an allergy, the employee capturing orders needs an effective way to communicate this to the kitchen. Many point of sale systems provide an option for indicating allergies on the order ticket. In emergency situations, staff should be trained on the proper reaction. For mild reactions this may include offering the customer cold water or ice. In severe cases staff should be trained on what to say when calling emergency services.

A restaurant’s allergy protocols should be recorded in an easily accessible location, such as the employee handbook. Additionally, allergy training should be refreshed regularly to reinforce the importance of following these procedures, to build customer trust and maintain a high level of food safety.

Reduce Food Allergy Risks Through Preparation and Education

Restaurants can reduce the risk of allergic reactions to customers through three key initiatives. Having thorough documentation of the ingredients in all menu items, and strategically incorporating relevant allergen information onto menus reduces the risk of a customer unknowingly ordering a dish they are allergic to. Dedicating equipment and surfaces for preparing allergen-free food reduces the risk of cross contamination during food preparations. Providing food allergy training in all areas of the restaurant, and documenting these protocols ensures staff are prepared to avoid food allergens, and react appropriately in the event of a reaction. Download Squadle’s free “Big 8” Allergen Poster here!