Survey: Many Restaurant Workers Don’t Understand Food Allergies

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Having severe food allergies can make dining out difficult. But most of us assume that professional food-service workers — from restaurant owners and caterers to wait staff — are sufficiently knowledgeable about allergies and trained in proper food-handling techniques. Guess again.

A new British survey finds that while 90% of respondents — who included 90 restaurant owners, waiters and chefs in Brighton, England — were trained in general food services, only about one-third had undergone any specific food-allergy training.

“A disproportionate number of food-provoked fatal anaphylactic reactions in the United Kingdom between 1999 and 2006 occurred after ingesting catered food. Food handlers’ poor knowledge may contribute to this elevated risk,” wrote the researchers from the public health division of Brighton and Sussex Medical School. “Currently, little training on food allergy is included in the generic food-hygiene training that is compulsory for all food handlers.”

Of those who had been educated about allergies, only three respondents had taken a specific food-allergy course; the remainder had learned about allergies as part of a general food-hygiene or first-aid course, or as part of the restaurant management’s employee training.

Overall, the food handlers’ understanding of how allergies work was poor. In 1 out of 3 kitchens, allergy-causing foods were not separated from other foods. Slightly more than half of allergy-educated workers surveyed could even identify three common allergens. (For the record, 90% of all food allergies are triggered by eight items: eggs, milk, shellfish, wheat, peanut, fish, soy and tree nuts.)

Further, nearly 25% thought that someone having an allergic reaction could drink a glass of water to “dilute the allergen”; 23% thought that people with allergies would be O.K. consuming “a small amount” of allergen; and 21% believed that people could just pick allergy-causing foods like nuts off their plates and suffer no reaction.

And yet 80% of those surveyed said they were confident they could provide a safe meal for customers with food allergies. “Alarmingly there was no association between the respondents’ knowledge and their comfort level in providing a safe meal to food-allergic customers,” the researchers wrote. “Staff with high comfort and low knowledge are potentially dangerous, as they may convey an exaggerated sense of competence to their customers, giving them false reassurance.”

The one thing that workers who had received food-allergy training understood better than workers who hadn’t was the sheer urgency and importance of immediate care required by customers going through anaphylactic shock.

The findings, appearing this month in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy, remind parents to be extra cautious when dining out with children with food allergies. The rate of allergies continues to rise in the U.S.: according to 2007 data, just over 3% of American adults have at least one food allergy, compared with 6% of children under the age of 3; a total of 3 million American children are affected.

To learn more about food allergies and what you can do to help someone having a reaction, take a look at this fact sheet [PDF] from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.