An Upside to Allergens

Win loyalty by catering to allergy-sensitive customers.

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

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For a retailer selling prepared foods, food allergies can be a frightening threat—and rightfully so. If you don’t maintain a safe environment, a customer with a food allergy could suffer a serious reaction and, justified or not, blame you.

“In a lot of cases, the information that we have is anecdotal, from friends, family, or media presenting pretty sensational depictions of anaphylactic reactions or allergic reactions of any sort,” says Bonnie Johnson, marketing and communications manager and staff dietitian for the National Peanut Board (NPB), Atlanta.

But there is a more optimistic side to food allergies. These same allergy-sensitive consumers are not only highly loyal to allergy-friendly establishments, but they also are tied to tight-knit social circles and eager to pass the word regarding allergyfriendly operators.

“There are studies that show that people with allergies will become very, very loyal to operations that they trust,” Johnson says. “So if they know you have procedures in place, that you are being transparent about the ingredients in your food, and that you are making efforts as much as possible, they will frequent your establishment time and time again.”

According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, food allergies affect more than 12 million Americans, about 4% of the population. Meanwhile, numbers from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness show that approximately one in 133 Americans has celiac disease, though it’s estimated that 95% of celiacs are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. (See sidebar on p. xx for more information on celiac and gluten.) Furthermore, an estimated 30 million Americans are gluten-intolerant. If you’re new to this, don’t worry. A growing number of allergen-conscious manufacturers, especially in the gluten-free segment, are making it increasingly easy for operators to offer at least something to this audience. It takes education, preparation and communication:

  • Understand what food allergies really are and how they manifest in people;
  • Determine what level of offering is right for you;
  • Create proper protocol and procedures for ensuring safety;
  • Set up methods of communication with your customers.

Food Allergies 101

A food allergy occurs when the immune system perceives a harmless substance (food protein) as a threat. Immune cells go into protection mode, causing redness, itching and swelling. Many foods can trigger an allergic reaction, though about 90% of all food-related allergic reactions are caused by the following eight items: eggs, fi sh, milk, peanuts, shellfi sh, soy, tree nuts and wheat.

In more serious cases, a runaway allergic reaction can cause anaphylaxis. An anaphylactic reaction can start with a tingling or itching sensation on the lips and in the mouth and progress to diffi culty breathing, coughing, swelling of the mouth and throat, vomiting, cramping, a drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness. Without immediate treatment, an anaphylactic reaction can be fatal. Injectable epinephrine or antihistamines can halt its symptoms.

The issue of serving sensitive customers is further complicated by food intolerances. An allergic reaction to food involves the immune system. A food intolerance, on the other hand, occurs when people have trouble digesting a particular food. And then there’s celiac disease. While it’s often handled like a food allergy, celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disease in which the digestion of gluten causes the immune system to specifically attack the small intestine.

The bottom line: If you wish to try to cater to these guests, it shouldn’t matter what part of their body is affected by an ingredient—immune system, digestive system or otherwise.

Dangerous Allergy Myths

In 2006, researchers at the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine surveyed 100 dining establishments to identify the most common allergy misconceptions. Among them:

Twenty-four percent of employees believed that consuming small amounts of an allergen is safe. In fact, the smallest quantity of a food can cause a reaction.

Thirty-five percent said that fryer heat destroys allergens. Allergens can remain in the oil, contaminating other foods that are cooked in the fryer.

Twenty-fi ve percent believed it was safe to remove an allergen from a finished meal. Rather, even trace amounts can cause allergic reactions. This is called cross-contact. Cross-contact can happen in the fryer or oven, on a cutting board or even an employee’s hands. A knife used to cut bread containing nuts, water used to boil cheese-fi lled pasta, or an inadequately cleaned utensil containing traces of egg are all potential points of cross-contact.

Procedures And Protocol

As you’re creating practices for aller- gen-free foodservice, it might help to think about it as just another aspect of your food safety and sanitation protocol.

For operations with a significant amount of food prep on-site or at a commissary (vs. selling primarily prepackaged foods), Robert Landolphi, manager for culinary development at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn., and author of cookbooks “Gluten Free Every Day” and “Quick Fix Gluten Free,” recommends fi rst looking at all your recipes and determining how they might be converted to be free of a particular allergen.

He uses recipe software FoodPro, which creates an ingredient database from all of the recipes. “When we look up a recipe, the database will spit out whatever allergen is in that recipe,” he explains.

When Landolphi started building up UConn’s gluten-free offerings, he went through the recipes and ingredients to determine what could be replaced with gluten-free versions. Initial targets included unexpected carriers of gluten: soy sauce, stocks and broths, sandwich meats and salad dressings.

From there, he aimed to put at least one gluten-free item on the menu of every meal daily. Landolphi also added refrigerators in the dining halls and stocked them with glutenfree hamburger buns, muffi ns, bagels, cereals and crackers (all sourced from gluten-free-certifi ed manufacturers). Separate toasters were brought in to avoid cross-contact.

For UConn students, signage in the campus’ eight residential facilities, six coffee shops, multiconcept food court and three convenience stores is vital to communication. Foods containing any of the top eight allergens plus gluten are labeled. “These folks really learn to navigate for themselves,” Landolphi says. “They are self-sufficient.”

In the back of the house, Landolphi recommends using closed bins and designating an area for allergen-free food prep. Designated, color-coded knives and cutting boards should also be used to avoid cross-contact.

When preparing a dish for an allergic customer, make sure every utensil and surface has been cleaned with soap and water first. If an employee suspects that a food may have been in contact with an allergen, don’t take a chance; prepare a new dish.

Serving allergy-sensitive customers may be more difficult for deli-type operations, where prepared foods are often displayed unpackaged in deli cases or on food bars. A customer accidentally dropping the serving spoon from one product into an otherwise allergen-free product can be enough to cause someone to get sick.

But for operations that rely largely on prepackaged, grab-and-go items, offering allergen-free foods can be much easier. Look first at the large number of packaged products guaranteed to be free of certain allergens. Baked goods such as muffins are also easy ins—but they have to stay packaged to avoid cross-contact.

“I would start off with the frozen foods that are available to me,” says Renee Zonka, managing director and associate dean of Kendall College, a culinary and hospitality school in Chicago. Zonka is also a registered dietitian who has taught menuing for food allergies to culinary students.

“Keep a loaf of gluten-free bread in the freezer, and if someone wants a sandwich, go get a couple of slices of bread and a clean knife and cutting board and make them a sandwich,” she says.

Educated Staff, Vendor Allies

Johnson of the NPB reiterates the importance of staff training, including the symptoms of an allergic reaction: “Make sure the staff feels confident to answer consumer questions and the autonomy to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and err on the side of caution when warranted.”

Formed 10 years ago by peanut farmers, the NPB watched the rise in visibility of peanut allergies and realized, “If we’re part of the problem, we need to be part of the solution,” says Ryan Lepicier, vice president of marketing and communications. It commits resources to research and education, including immersions with companies that are trying to better understand peanut allergies.

Working closely with vendors is also crucial to this cause. Not only can they help you navigate what products are available, but constant contact is also required to ensure you know of any changes to ingredients or manufacturing procedures.

For liability protection, ensure suppliers have a documented allergencontrol program in place, and request a letter guaranteeing that purchased goods are free of undeclared allergens. Receiving personnel should visually inspect all shipments for damaged containers and spillage.

Crucial Communications

Creating procedures, training staff and working with vendors are the first steps. Next, market to the allergen-sensitive consumer. In fact, communication should really begin at the ideation stage. Work with customers to develop a marketing program that tackles their concerns to ensure you’re providing something they’ll really purchase, and let their feedback drive your offer.

Kendall College’s Zonka recommends operators reach out via websites, blogs and forums. “That stuff really gets around,” he says.

Best practices and consistent communications will likely win you a following of appreciative customers searching for trustworthy establishments. “The community is really very talkative,” Zonka says. “When they find a place that’s good and not too expensive that meets their needs, they’re there. The pipeline is strong.”    

Gluten-Free’s Growth

While 95% of celiacs are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the diagnosis rate is expected to reach upwards of 60% by 2019, thanks to efforts to raise public awareness.

But with the increase in awareness has come a confusing barrage of information on celiac disease and gluten intolerance. For one, the two are different. Celiac disease is not an allergy; it’s an autoimmune digestive disease triggered by the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

When people with celiac eat gluten, their immune system attacks the fi nger-like villi of the small intestine. When the villi is damaged, the body is unable to absorb nutrients, leading to malnourishment and signifi cant problems including osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer—on top of the more immediate reactions such as cramping and bloating, numbness, fatigue, muscle weakness and rashes.

The market for gluten-free goods is growing as rapidly as the number of diagnosed people. In 2004, gluten-free products netted $560 million in annual sales. In 2008, that number jumped $1.56 billion. It was expected to reach $2.8 billion by the end of 2010.

Most people know that gluten is found in many breads, pastas and cereals. What’s challenging is the large number of foods where gluten hides. It’s often used in food processing, and tricky foods include some sausages, deli meats, salad dressings, seasoning blends, processed or powdered cheeses, sauces and gravies.  

Takeaway Tips for Your Operation

  • Use closed bins in the kitchen, and designate color-coded cutting boards and knives for foods that are meant to be allergen-free.
  • Use soap and water to clean utensils and other surfaces of allergens.
  • Encourage staff to be honest with customers and always err on the side of caution.
  • Talk to customers to ensure you’re providing something they’ll really purchase, and let their feedback drive your offer. Ask suppliers for documentation on their allergen-control program and a letter guaranteeing that purchased goods are free of undeclared allergens

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