Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Food Allergies – What You Need to Know and Do to Protect Your Family

Food Allergies – What You Need to Know and Do to Protect Your Family

Are you or someone in your family allergic to the food you eat? 15 million people in the US have some type of food allergy.

Common allergens include peanuts, tree nuts (pecans, walnuts, and almonds), milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that almost 30,000 emergency room visits, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths occur each year directly related to allergic reactions.

It has been estimated that over half the fatal food allergy episodes happen outside the home, often in restaurants.

Allergies produce an immune reaction in the body, resulting in a multitude of physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, swollen lips and tongue, hives, and gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting, diarrhea and cramps. The most severe reaction is known as anaphylaxis and occurs when the airway constricts in response to the allergen which can be life-threatening.

A food allergy differs from an intolerance to a food, which causes digestive problems after eating particular food not an immune reaction.

Food Allergy Certification and Training for Restaurants

There are a variety of organizations helping restaurants become more allergy friendly and people learn more about allergies. There are training courses, certification programs, allergy friendly restaurant finders and support for those with allergies.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island require food training for employees on food allergy basics. In 2010, Massachusetts was the first state to require food handlers to be fully trained and certified about food allergens. New York proposes food allergy posters be placed in restaurants.

The hope is that all restaurants across the country will be required to be certified and require their food handlers to learn basic skills to prevent adverse reactions.

Restaurants who have acquired a Food Allergy Friendly Certification (it will be displayed) have to meet minimum standards such as staff training, strict food storage guidelines for common allergens, removal of wooden cutting boards, stringent use of oil for frying, chef or manager personally delivers meal to person with allergies to verify its safety, and protocols are in place in the event of an allergic reaction.

The National Restaurant Association runs a certification course for food handlers called ServSafe Allergens. It educates managers and staff about food allergies and the proper steps to prevent occurrences. It covers topics such as what is a food allergy, cleaning methods, preventing cross contamination, handling emergencies, communicating requests, understanding food labeling and personal hygiene.

Look for the specific Allergens certification, not just the ServSafe designation which only covers food safety issues.

Legislation and Food Allergies

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) (Public Law 108-282) mandates the labeling of all packaged foods sold in the US that contain major food allergens declare their contents.

For labeling purposes, the common allergens listed above with the addition of these tree nuts — pine nut, macadamia nut, lichee nut, coconut, chestnut, brazil nut, beech nut, filbert or hazelnut, cashew, butternut, hickory nut and pistachio, are considered major allergens and their identification is regulated for consumers.

Originally the label of a food made using two or more allergen ingredients must declare each ingredient by its common or usual name. This was updated in 2006 to also cover foods with only one allergen ingredient. There is not currently a minimum level or threshold amount set in order to mandate a statement containing an allergen, any amount must be disclosed.

A new provision in the FDA Food Code under the Demonstration of Knowledge [Subparagraph 2-102.11(C)(9)] requires that “the person in charge of a food establishment shall have an understanding of the foods identified as major food allergens and the symptoms that a major food allergen could cause in a sensitive individual.”

A recent ruling for food products regulates the term gluten-free but is voluntary at this time. In August of 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a regulation that defines the term “gluten-free” for food labeling.

The new definition provides consumers – especially those with celiac disease – the assurance “gluten-free” claims on food products are consistent and reliable across the food industry and gives them a standardized tool for managing their health and dietary intake.

Restaurants are encouraged to appropriately identify their food as gluten-free but this is also voluntary. If a manufacturer or restaurant makes a claim of a food being gluten-free then they are responsible for its truth.

Know Unforeseen Causes of Allergy to Protect You and Your Family

Many people, especially food handlers, don’t realize cross contamination, the more accurate term cross contact, is one of the most common ways to be a victim of an allergic food reaction. Cross contamination is the unintentional transference of particles from one food to another and includes food allergens or bacteria.

Often experts refer to cross contact for allergens and cross contamination with bacteria. Cross-contamination happens more often than you would think and can result in a severe allergic reaction from a food not considered to contain a particular allergen.

Some things to know about cross contamination / contact.

  • Common locations for cross contamination are cutting boards, cooking or preparation surfaces, pots, pan, plates, utensils and frying oil.
  • Improper or a lack of hand washing when preparing foods can also lead to cross contamination.
  • Cross contamination can occur when an allergic food is placed together with one that is not considered allergic and then removed such as when sprinkling a salad with nuts then removing them for service.
  • Cross contamination can also occur during food processing when equipment or ingredients are used improperly.

It is important for everyone — home cooks, food processors and food handlers to safely store and prepare foods that contain potential allergens. Learning about food allergens is the first step.

Protecting yourself and your family members from ingesting potentially harmful foods requires constant diligence, according to Karen Harris of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT).

“Even with new laws being adopted and policy being developed in many restaurant and food-service establishments, this is not a guarantee that the food-allergic individual will be provided a safe meal” and “food-allergic individuals must always be prepared for an emergency.” 

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