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SafeFood© Blog - Food Allergies and Retail Foodservices

Do you have an allergic reaction to certain foods? Well join the club. The Center for Disease Control and Prevent reports that the number of Americans with allergies or intolerances to certain foods is increasing; with estimates that up to 8% of children and 2% of adults are affected. The allergies happen because of a family history of asthma and allergies, and/or higher levels of an allergen specific serum immunoglobulin. Only eight types of food account for about 90% of the allergic reactions: cow’s milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat. Over 3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts but close to 7 million are allergic to seafood. Only eight types of food doesn’t sound so hard to control, until we think about all the food items from each type – how many dairy products are made with cow’s milk and how many food items at the grocery store contain soybean oil? Allergic reactions to foods can cause some pretty serious symptoms – shortness of breath, swelling in the tongue and throat, dizziness, rash or hives and even loss of consciousness. Anaphylactic reactions require epinephrine - an EpiPen® is standard equipment in schools. The best method to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid the food. So that raises some real challenges for retail foodservices, and their customers.

Few airlines now serve peanuts (although, surprisingly, these were a snack on a recent overseas flight), even though most customers are of an age to realize that a reaction might occur, and, because the product is a prepackaged snack, there is little risk of cross-contamination from a food handler.

Schools have been the battle field for many discussions on food allergies because little kids may not understand the risks and consequences, kids trade food at the lunch tables, food is brought from home, and peanut butter is a government commodity. One CDC project called SHPPS (School Health Policies and Programs Study), assessed school health policies at state, district, school building, and classroom levels and found in a 2006 study (go to www.cdc.gov) that 90% of districts and 98% of school buildings required information about food allergies to be kept in a student’s permanent record. The study also reported that over three-fourths of school nutrition programs had a written plan for providing service to students with food allergies. Some districts require medical documentation of a food allergy before any accommodations are made, which I totally agree with as school meals programs have enough on their plates. As a mom who made her kids PB&J sandwiches just about every day of their school careers, I am not sure what would have been in that lunch sack if there had been restrictions. But I would hate to have my laziness cause some little kid to have an allergic reaction. Another finding from the SHPPS report that I found surprising (until I realized this might mean middle and high schools) was about half of school buildings offered a la carte foods (not the reimbursable meal) containing peanuts or peanut butter. Because it is the younger youngsters who don’t get the risk concept, one mom designed a universal symbol to identify kids with food allergies. The symbol is a green stop sign with an exclamation point (see her website at www.AllergyKids.com). Another strategy is “No Peanut Zone” which can serve as a compromise. I am on the fence for this issue – the idea of banning peanut butter from schools seems drastic but some kid dying because of a reaction does also.

But it is a big world out there and hard to police all places where food is sold. Customers with allergies do bear the burden in clearly defining what foods are not allowed when placing their orders. And retail foodservices need to be sure they give accurate information. Having written guidelines in place helps everyone know what to do –customers, staff, parents, and kids. Written information can be as simple as listing ingredients on the menus, or an advisory sign where food is ordered. The chain operations have systematic procurement procedures with well-defined ingredient specifications. It is the smaller operations where a supplier may provide a product from a new manufacturer with a different ingredient that could cause an allergic reaction. Some allergic reactions are so sensitive that one could happen if someone touches a food item that causes allergies and then a utensil used to serve a product to someone with that allergy. Restaurants or places where there is a self-service counter may have some issues. Does the grill guy know whether a peanut or soybean oil was used? Is there an alternative to cow’s milk offered? Do the rolls contain wheat flour? Did any of the above touch anything else in the kitchen? If you are in charge of a retail foodservice and don’t know the answers to these questions – it is time to find out. Food allergies are here and changing the way business is done.