Are restaurants serving up allergy knowledgeable staffs?

by Brooke on May 3, 2011

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I was eating at Owen and Engine last week and heard the wait staff asking guests, “Does anyone at the table have any allergies that the chef should be made aware of?”  Despite having amazing food and drinks, I was delighted that this question was being asked and fell in love with the restaurant even more!  

Restaurants should start asking this question regularly!  Currently in the U.S., about 3.9% of children under the age of 18 and 2% of all adults have food allergies. That is a lot of customers that need to be properly taken care of to prevent anaphylactic shock.  According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, 90% of all food allergies are caused by the following foods: cow’s milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts (for example, walnuts, pecans, almonds, and cashews), fish, shellfish, soybeans, and wheat. 

An interesting study conducted by S. Baily from Brighton and Sussex Medical School in  Brighton, UK, investigated how knowledgeable restaurants’ staff are about food allergies.  Data collection included a structured telephone questionnaire and was administered to the staff of 90 restaurants located in Brighton.  Results of the telephone questionnaire showed that 33% of those interviewed had food allergy training.  However, 81% believed that they would be able to provide a safe and allergen-free food to a consumer with a food allergy.  That is a little scary!  Only 33% of these individuals had training, yet a shocking 81% of them felt confident providing consumers with an allergen-free meal.  They don’t have the education to back up their confidence, but yet these people are serving you food.  Interestingly enough, the breakdown of those 90 staff individuals was:  7 owners, 48 managers, 20 waiters and 15 chefs.  If these are the top people running the restaurants and planning the menu, wouldn’t you think they would be more familiar with food allergies?  Surprise they aren’t!  Also, the questionnaire included a true and false section about frequently misunderstood topics pertaining to food allergies and most of these questions were not answered correctly by the majority of the restaurants’ staff. 

I have witnessed this confidence and lack of knowledge first hand.  I have a friend that is unable to eat pork.  One night, I ordered take out for us for dinner and asked the waiter over the phone does this dish have any pork in it?  The waiter responded confidently “no.”  When the food was delivered we noticed that there were little chunks of pork in the pasta dish.  Thankfully, my friend noticed this right away.  I called the restaurant back and said, “I asked if there was pork in the dish and you said no.”  The waiter responded, “There isn’t.”  I told him to tell me everything in the dish.  About 5-6 food items in he said, “Ham is in the dish.”  I said, “HAM…HAM is PORK!”  

Although pork is not an allergen, this principle could also be applied to general food preferences and/or cultural/religious food practices. This was  a good lesson.  You can ask questions, but when it comes down to it food-allergic individuals really need to be aware that a restaurant’s staff may not be properly educated and extra precaution should be taken. 

Do you have any food allergy and restaurant stories?  What do you think should be required of restaurants?

Photo courtesyof Jim the Chin.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Dagny May 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Do restaurants put themselves in a position of potential liability if they ask a patron about allergies and then serve what might be considered by the patron to be a meal guaranteed not to cause an allergic reaction? I am not a lawyer so I don’t know!

My thought would be that a restaurant COULD be held legally liable for accurately reporting what foods are prepared in their kitchen and what the ingredients are in their dishes, putting the legal burden on the patron to ask for themselves.


Brooke May 3, 2011 at 7:45 pm

That is a good point Dagny! I think restaurants could get sued either way, so it would be in their best interest to at least educate their staffs.


Nicole, RD May 3, 2011 at 5:37 pm

I fellow Illini alum and RD! Hi! LOVE your blog! It’s beautiful and your writing is so fun and inviting! I love that story. It’s sad to me that people can’t draw the connection between pork and ham. Oy. I’m glad I don’t have any serious food preferences or allergies, that’s for sure!


Brooke May 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Hi Nicole! Thanks for stopping by :) I guess we just need to get out there and help educate the staff at all these restaurants!


Jordan Marsh May 4, 2011 at 2:04 am

Also not a lawyer…but I have worked in finance and I am familiar with issues of disclosure and liability. I definitely think if a restaurant worker ASKS about any food allergies, that’s like volunteering to assume responsibility. But let’s say I have a potentially life-threatening allergy. I’d avoid any restaurants likely to use the DANGER FOOD right off! Why be stupid and tempt fate!! When visiting a new restaurant I would probably ask if I could speak to the head waiter or manager (and not put my life in the hands of general waitstaff) and inquire if the DANGER FOOD was used in ANY dishes at that restaurant. If the answer is yes and I value my life, I’ll go eat somewhere else!! I’m not sure if restaurants should be charged with responsibility for the many and varied allergies that exist now. It didn’t seem like food killed anybody when I was a kid!


Sarah May 4, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Great post considering that next week (May 8-14, 2011) is Food Allergy Awareness Week! A really good source of information for food allergic consumers is the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network:


Lauren May 9, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Another great post. I am shocked a waiter/restaurant would invite allergy requests though I like the concept of awareness. I think there are more waiters in the “pork” category and it’s a little scary.


religious food May 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Nice article!


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