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Alison O'Hearn
September 15, 2022
Designing with Food Allergies in Mind
Designing with Food Allergies in Mind

Food allergies are common in our world today.  Adults and children alike suffer with modest to severe adverse reactions to all sorts of foods.  Ingredients that have the potential to trigger an allergic reaction for even one person can be found in most kitchens.  Does that mean someone with an allergy cannot eat anything they do not prepare themselves?  How do you build a kitchen that is still safe for people with allergies?

Food Allergens 101

There are 8 major food allergens as identified by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004.  They are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.  Sesame will join the list in 2023.  Then there are the more uncommon food allergies, more than 160 according to the FDA, that cause reactions, like garlic or avocados or…the list goes on.

Designing with Allergens in Mind

 Let’s focus on the student segment.  How do K-12 cafeterias and higher education foodservices ensure their kitchens can provide food safety for every student, those with food allergies included?  A foodservice design consultant can work with the operator and the school to develop and implement operational strategies as well as design allergy-free zones that eliminate cross-contamination of ingredients.

In fact, a trend in higher education foodservice is to offer a separate and independent station for students with allergies.  A serving station, prep area, and dish washing area separate from other foodservice prep that will never include the major allergens in the area eliminate the possibility for cross contamination and creates a safer environment for the student with an allergy.  These stations should be equipped with dedicated refrigeration, prep tables, prep sink, hand sink, cooking equipment, utensils, dry storage, three-compartment sinks, and an under-counter, high-temperature dishwasher for ware washing.  Some schools even implement a prep area for students to cook their own allergen-free meals, offering them an opportunity to engage in learning lifelong cooking skills.

Other kitchens utilize a dedicated area and chef to take care of all allergy-safe meals.  They may have color-coded utensils and cutting boards designating allergen contamination, saved in a specially sealed box, and located in the dedicated area.  Once the tools are used, they are washed, rinsed, sanitized, and dried separately from other items.  They are then wrapped in plastic wrap to keep them protected and placed in the dedicated allergy-free area.

 The Allergen Avoidance Plan

Let’s say you don’t have the space, staff, or resources to create independent stations or separate kitchens?  How can you best avoid allergen cross contamination?

Educate your Staff

 Staff need to know the importance of allergies and the protocol for allergen-free operations.  Just like with all food safety, front-of-house staff should be included in this training.  Servers should have accessibility to recipes, so they know the ingredients of each food offering, allowing them to recommend items that are free of a certain allergen ingredient or ask the kitchen to leave it out.

Use a Color-Coding Plan

 Optimize your allergen control with the use of color coding.  Use one color to signify all tools and dishes that come into contact with a specific allergen, from the storage of raw ingredients to the cooking and serving of the menu item, and a different color for another allergen.  Purple is the traditional color of choice for products that are free of the 8 common allergies.   The level and depth of coding can be tailored based on your individual operation’s needs.  The key, however, is to ensure that the layout and design of your facility is in sync with your color-coding plan.

Use and Follow Recipes

 It is easy to have a plan to avoid the 8 most common allergens, but what happens when a guest is allergic to something else like garlic, for instance?  Is there chopped garlic or garlic powder in the pre-made sauce, or garlic in the stock?  Following recipes is not only helpful in flavor consistency, but also it allows trust in the product regardless of the line cook making it.  There will always be the same ingredients in the dish when everyone follows the same recipe.  Accessible recipes are critical to allergen-free food safety.

 Engage a Nutritionist

Some schools work with their nutrition or dietetics departments to ensure that students with allergies can feel confident they are eating allergy-free foods.  It’s a good idea to include a nutritionist in the planning stages of a design.  They can provide input to the foodservice consultant developing allergy-free strategies and zones.

How Do They Handle It?

 Before I started designing kitchens I worked in them, and I was able to see how many different types of operations, both big and small, handled allergies.

At a buffet restaurant in Disney World the chef will walk each guest with allergies around the buffet and tell them exactly what is safe to eat because all recipes are followed, and stations are set up to avoid cross contamination while cooking.  They even have a cast member dedicated to watching the buffet line and replacing serving utensils in case there is a possibility of cross contamination.

Frying donuts can also lend itself to being potentially hazardous.  A small shop decided to make vegan and gluten free donuts alongside their signature yeast donuts.  This recipe did not include any of the 8 major allergens— they were always mixed, rolled, cut, and fried before the yeast donuts to lower the risk—however it was an open-air kitchen where cross contamination was very possible, so they added specific signage that alerted the patrons to be cautious.  The front of house staff was also encouraged to remind the customers of the possibility of cross contamination.

A small French bistro has a message at the bottom of every page in the menu requesting the guest alert their server about dietary restrictions so the chef can recommend certain dishes or modify others.  Is this type of note required? Unfortunately, no.  Restaurants that make food to order are not legally required to warn their customers about possible allergens.  Each local jurisdiction does have different rules, so please check the local regulations.

Safety First

Allergen safety is a team effort. Initially, the foodservice consultant, project team, and operator, and then later, the kitchen staff, servers and even the student must communicate and work together to provide a healthy and safe allergy-free environment.

By:  Alison O’Hearn, Associate | Germantown

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