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Do restaurant workers understand food allergies?

For those with food allergies, eating out can be anxiety-provoking, as it is difficult to control what ends up on your plate. Even if the problematic ingredient is not purposefully included in a dish, cross-contamination can occur in the kitchen. The result is that people with food allergies can still come into contact with food allergens at restaurants, even if they don’t order something containing that allergen.

To complicate matters further, allergens can get into the air during cooking, so simply cooking certain foods can put restaurants at risk for exposing allergic individuals to dangerous allergens. Given the safety risks, it is important for restaurant staff to be knowledgeable about food allergies to the extent that they can minimize harmful exposure to their customers.

A recent study in Germany, published in PLOS One, evaluated 295 people working in restaurants to determine how well they understood food allergies. Over the course of 3 months, researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with restaurant staff, about half of whom were servers.

Nearly 90% of those interviewed said that they were confident that they could provide meal information related to allergies, and 46% had completed training in food allergies. Nonetheless, not even half of the restaurant staffers could correctly answer a 5-question quiz on food allergies. Only 30% could name 3 food allergens, and 35% believed the common misconception that water alleviates food allergy reactions.

Also concerning was that individuals working in restaurants demonstrated negative views towards patrons with food allergies. While nearly 20% of those interviewed said that they would rather not serve those with food allergies, 42% said that they don’t believe customers who declare allergies. Interestingly, female servers were more likely than male servers to believe those who said that they were allergic to certain foods.

These data demonstrate that there is no correlation between food allergy training and food allergy knowledge, as those who have undergone training do not appear to be more knowledgeable about food allergies than the general population. These results suggest that new training programs may need to be developed if restaurant workers are to understand food allergies. Until then, people with food allergies should be extra cautious when dining at restaurants.

Author
Dr. Summit Shah

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