I strongly believe that an open dialogue is vital between the consumer and the restaurant staff, manufacturer or retailer providing a food product, when dealing with food allergies.
Simply going to a restaurant you have eaten in before or picking up a food product you’ve had 1000 times without chekcing the Allergen Info is not enough, as I have learned.
In a restaurant, menu changes, changes in ingredients sources, manufacturing defects and cross-contact during food preperations can all intruduce food allergy hazards. Manufacturers defects, error in disclosure of allergy information, errors or gaps in labelling can occur at the supplier facilitity.
A food manufacturing company may created a ”Limited Edition” product which may utilize ingredients from new suppliers who have not yet been fully investigated or allergen information may not be updated promptly on the packaging, flyers or website when changes or additions are made. These changes have the potential to introudce unexpected allergens.
Cross contact with allergens can easily occur during food preperation at busy restaurants or cafes.
If contacting the restaurant before dining, call between meal periods; do not call during peak breakfast, lunch or dinner hours. Usually the best time to call is between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. Most restaurants are not as busy during these hours and therefore can spend more time talking with you. If no one is available to talk, ask for the manager or chef’s name and the best time to call back. Be ready with your list of questions.
In some cases there may not be a specific area to prepare allergen free food.
For example, an egg allergic individual may ask wheather a salad is available egg free, to which the staff may say yes and just remove the egg from an already assembled salad. Or make a sald without egg using the same gloves, chopping board and utensils they used when prepraring the salads with egg.
Be extremely clear about your allergies stating that the allergen cannot be near your dish in preperation.
Food allergen risks may also arise from gaps in communicating allergen information due to consumer behaviour, lack of staff knowledge, failure to establish food allergen inventory or failure to disclose allergen information accuratly on the menu. You may be hesitant to ask for information about food allergens at restaurants due to the fear of embarrasment or being percieved as picky but it is important you remain calm, clear and confident when discussing your allergies.
If visiting the restaurant for the first time, ask to speak with the manager about their allergy policy before ordering. Ask open-ended questions where the staff must seek out the correct answer on site from the chef instead of yes/no answers.
Here are a few questions I would suggest to ask once you have informed the staff about your food allergy.
Depending on your allergy, you may only need to ask a select number of questions, but use your own judgement if you feel it is safe to eat.
- Inform them of your allergy and ask if it’s something your restaurant is comfortable handling. It is best to contact the restaurant in advance if you have multiple food allergies or less common allergies.
- Ask to speak with the chef or manager if you can when disucsing your food allergies. Sometimes the server staff may not be aware of a change of ingredient in dishes, or they may be new and not want to approach the amnager or chef to ask questions .
- What is your policy for managing food allergies and preventing cross-contact in the kitchen?
- Do you have a separate area to prepare food for people with special diets?
- What foods are prepared in this area? They may use hidden allergens in this area without realizing it.
- Are allergens stored in their own clearly labelled container separate from other foods? If it’s busy some containers or bowls that previously stored allergens (e.g nuts) could be refilled with a different food (e.g cut peppers) by mistake.
- Do you have separate cutting boards and utensils to prepare my meal with? This may be color-coded tools for safe food preparation for people with food allergies.
- Can I look at ingredient labels…of the sauce/dressing/spices?
Presenting ingredient labels is usually a good sign that they will be accommodating. Always remind yourself you are the expert on your food allergy—not the restaurant staff.
- Inform them what dish you are interested in and ask them if they would recommend it for someone with allergies. Take into consideration how it is prepared in the kitchen.
- Ask if the chef can modify a particular dish to accommodate customers with allergies? Ask if the dish can be made without butter, cheese, egg, breadcrumbs or other ingredients containing your allergens.
- What type of oil do you cook with? and what other food is cooked in this oil?
- If the dish is cooked on the grill, could the grill be cleaned in advance or could my order be cooked in a different spot, on tinfoil or in a pan?
- Is the chef aware of hidden names for allergens? It is advised to keep a card in your purse displaying all the possible names for your allergen and show it to staff/chefs, so they can check. Also inform staff of hidden places for your allergen that they may be unaware of, for example nuts in dips/sauces, gluten in certain soy sauces.
- When food arrives, confirm with the staff that your dish was made separate due to food allergies. I always ask to make sure it is the dish I ordered and that it was made specific for my allergies. People make mistakes, so it is always better to ask. I want to enjoy my food, and not worry about a potential allergic reaction.
Questions at a Counter-Service venue:
- Would you mind changing your gloves, using fresh utensils and/or a fresh container of —?
Questions for a Food Business
All food products should present appropirate allergen information however if you are unsure about a product, get in contact with the food manufactruers by email or phone.
- Does this product contain any traces of ….?
- Does the facility produce any products containing the allergen ….?
- Are the ingredients sourced from an allergen free supplier?
When speaking with staff, listen to their tone of voice. If they sound annoyed or confused by your questions, then they are probably not very accommodating.
You should NEVER be embarrassed to ask these questions as you must look out for yourself.
Trust your gut when deciding if you feel comfortable eating there. If something doesn’t feel right, always ask!
Eating out should be an enjoyable experience and shouldn’t make you feel worried or anxious, if you ask the right questions and get the right answers hopefully you’ll feel more relaxed!