Addressing the Growing Demand for Allergen-Free Dining

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CHALLENGE

Last New Year’s Day, an 11-year-old boy died tragically in Brooklyn, N.Y., apparently from inhaling the fumes rising off the fish his grandmother was cooking. At the time, health officials pointed out that such an incident is extremely rare, but it illustrates how important it is for anyone involved in food preparation to understand the risks of food allergies.

Beatrice Povolo, director of Advocacy and Media Relations for the organization Food Allergy Canada, says more than 2.6 million Canadians — roughly 7.5 per cent — report at least one food allergy. A national U.S. study released last January by Lurie Children’s Hospital and Northwestern University found food allergies are rising, with about 10.8 per cent of U.S. adults affected — double the proportion found in previous studies.

Consequences of being exposed to an allergen range from skin irritations, such as hives, to difficulty breathing, digestive upset and lowering of blood pressure. The most severe form of reaction, known as anaphylaxisis, can be fatal. Food Allergy Canada currently lists peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, wheat, sesame, soy, mustard, mollusks (including clams, oysters, snails and squid), crustaceans (such as shrimp, crab and lobster) and sulphites (used as a food additive) as the most common allergens. In addition, some diners have intolerances or sensitivities to food compounds such as gluten or milk.

“It’s a very serious topic, one not to take lightly,” says Anesie Johnson-Smith, VP of Marketing for Service Inspired Restaurants (SIR Corp.), whose brands include Jack Astor’s Bar & Grill, Canyon Creek and Scaddabush Italian Kitchen & Bar. SIR Corp. requires all servers to be trained on food allergies.

“The most important thing for people in foodservice to know,” says Povolo, “is that a food allergy is a medical condition that must be taken seriously, because, unfortunately, even a small amount of an allergen can cause a severe reaction.”

OPPORTUNITY

“Due to the risks faced by allergic consumers, there is a growing market for allergen-safe food,” says Restaurants Canada’s Food Allergies: A guide for restaurants. The investment in setting up a food-allergy system can pay off in the loyalty of diners dealing with allergies, while it attracts those who simply want to know more about the ingredients.

“This is a very loyal group of consumers,” says Povolo. “Once they have a certain comfort level, these are repeat customers.”

At Sir Corp., servers are trained to contact a manager when they identify a guest with a food allergy or intolerance. After determining the severity of the allergy, the manager then assists the guest in selecting menu items and personally communicates with the kitchen. An “allergy kit” (sanitized cutting board, knife, tongs and gloves) is used to prepare the food. Common allergens, such as peanuts and croutons, are kept on the expo side rather than on the line, to reduce chances for cross-contamination.

“We also have dedicated gluten-free fryers,” says Johnson-Smith. “Yes, there’s a little bit of upfront work that goes into it, but it’s worth it — the trust our guests put in us speaks volumes about that.”

As parents of children with severe food allergies, Pauline Oseña and Matt Gauvin decided to open their own allergy-aware fast-casual restaurant and bakery, Hype Food Co., in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood. Their kitchen is free from major allergens; ingredients are stored and handled with care to avoid cross-contamination; and the build-your-own-meal concept makes it easy for guests to customize orders.

“We get people with food allergies, probably daily, but the majority of our regular business is the locals around who want to eat healthy,” Oseña says. “I certainly think there’s a growing market.”

Written by Sarah B. Hood

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