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Survey Says: Restaurant Managers Should Focus on Food Allergies

LAS CRUCES - New Mexico restaurant managers need to bone up on their knowledge and training about food allergies, report New Mexico State University researchers.

Keith Mandabach, left, an assistant professor with New Mexico State University's hotel, restaurant, and tourism management department, and graduate student Alicia Ellsworth, review results of a new study of New Mexico restaurant managers focusing on food allergies. (01/03/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

For those without food allergies, it's sometimes difficult to appreciate just how critical and they are. But more than 7 million Americans have some type of food allergy. Some 30,000 receive emergency room treatment every year, and about 200 people die from allergic reactions.

"Unfortunately, most of the food allergy emergencies occur after eating out," said Keith Mandabach, an assistant professor with NMSU's hotel, restaurant, and tourism management department who has been studying food allergies since 1999. "That's why it's critical for restaurant managers to understand the problem and train their frontline staffs appropriately.

"In a restaurant setting, customers with food allergies aren't expecting a medical understanding of their ailment," he said. "They just want and need an accurate account of the ingredients going into their food."

Using data collected from a survey sent to 600 members of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, Mandabach and Alicia Ellsworth, a NMSU graduate student, found that more than 90 percent of the managers felt that additional food allergy training was very important.

Many managers appear to blur their understanding of food allergies with food intolerance, like lactose intolerance, and food poisoning, Ellsworth said. But each ailment has specific causes and solutions, she said.

While there are hundreds of food ingredients that may provoke an allergic reaction, about 90 percent involve tree nuts, peanuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat.

Food allergy training is an emerging priority among New Mexico's restaurant industry, Mandabach said. Allergic reactions and subsequent deaths of restaurant patrons in Wisconsin and Rhode Island have led to costly, high-profile legal settlements, which have put many restaurant owners across the nation on their toes, he said.

Food allergy reactions range from mild to severe. Mild symptoms typically begin with hives. As reactions progress, the lips, tongue and throat can swell and people can experience shortness of breath or wheezing. In more serious cases, a food allergy can move into a medical emergency that causes nausea, vomiting, and eventually a drop in blood pressure and unconsciousness.

"You don't have to eat an entire plate of food to get a reaction," said Priscilla Bloomquist, an associate professor in NMSU's hotel, restaurant, and tourism management department. "Even trace amounts of allergens can produce fatal reactions in highly susceptible individuals."

Today, managers need to be proactive and aware of the ingredients in every item being served, she said. Just listing salad oil isn't good enough anymore; it has to be what kind of oil because that's what can make people sick.

Another means of paving the way for a safer restaurant experience lies in the hands of the universities and cooking schools through teaching about food allergies in the curriculum. At NMSU, food allergy training is a required topic in food service management courses.

In addition to coursework on the types of food allergies and training methods for restaurant staffs, students take on role playing exercises in a game called "Beat the Reaper." In this exercise, they're given different products along with a specific warning of a food allergy. The students have to determine the content of the item and whether it's safe to serve.

"One of the real challenges in helping people with food allergies is that the only thing they can do is avoid the allergen itself," Bloomquist said. "They must be diligent or they can end up killing themselves by ingesting something without even realizing it was an ingredient. People have to be able to rely on restaurateurs and their frontline employees to give them a heads up."

Meanwhile, the federal government is moving to bolster food ingredient requirements. Recently legislation cleared Congress requiring food labels to identify allergens in easy-to-understand language. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires products to list the top eight food allergens. The bill also requires food ingredient statements to identify food allergens used in spices, natural or artificial flavorings and additives.