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 checking the Allergen Information is not enough, as I have learned.
In restaurants, menus can change, ingredients can change or be sourced from different companies. Manufacturing defects and cross-contact can occur during food preparation and there can be errors in disclosure of allergy information or labelling. Food manufacturing companies may create a ”Limited Edition” product made up of ingredients sourced from different suppliers than their original ingredients were sourced from. These changes have the potential to introduce unexpected allergens.
Cross contact with allergens can occur during food preparation 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. Outside of peak hours staff 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.
There may not be a specific area to prepare allergen free food.
For example, an egg allergic individual may ask whether 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 salad without egg using the same gloves, chopping board and utensils they used when preparing the salads with egg.
Be clear about your allergies stating that the allergen cannot be near your dish in preparation.
Food allergen risks may also arise from gaps in communicating allergen information due to lack of staff knowledge, failure to establish where hidden allergen could be found or failure to disclose allergen information accurately on the menu. You may be hesitant to ask for information about food allergens at restaurants due to the fear of embarrassment or being perceived 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 staff must seek out the correct answer on site from the chef instead of yes/no answers.
Here are a few questions you could 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 out in a particular restaurant.
- Inform staff about 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 to discuss your food allergies. Sometimes staff may not be aware of a change in ingredient in dishes, or they may be new and not want to approach the manager 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 individuals 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 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. sweetcorn) by mistake.)
- Do you have separate cutting boards and utensils to prepare my meal? (This may include color-coded utensils for safe food preparation for individuals with food allergies.)
- Can I look at the ingredient label…of the sauce/dressing/spices?
(Presenting ingredient labels is usually a good sign that they will be accommodating. Always remind yourself that you are the expert of 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? 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 area, 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. Also inform staff of hidden foods your allergen could be present in, that they may be unaware of, for example nuts in dips/sauces, gluten in certain soy sauces.)
- When food arrives, confirm with staff that your food allergies were taken into consideration when preparing your dish.
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 appropriate allergen information however if you are unsure about a product, get in contact with the food manufacturers 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 feel embarrassed asking these questions.
Eating out should be an enjoyable experience and shouldn’t make you feel worried or anxious.
Stay calm, clear and confident when informing staff about your allergy and don’t be afraid to ask questions about the allergen policy, food preparation and your chosen meal, in order to make you feel comfortable eating there.