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On Jan. 23, Senate Bill (S 409) was introduced in Maryland that mandates all commercial kitchens to have allergy awareness training. If passed, establishments must have one employee on the premise at all times who has completed a food allergen awareness training course and passed an accredited test approved by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Of those individuals who have gone through training, one employee must be available to discuss meal options with customers who have food allergies during food service hours.
In addition to allergy awareness training, every establishment will also be required to request that a customer with food allergies inform the staff of their allergies. Food establishments will have two options when requesting allergy information from customers. The first option is for the establishment to place a clearly written request on either a menu or a board. The second option is for the server to ask guests about any possible allergies the diners may have.
In 2013 another initiative, HB 9 was signed by the governor of Maryland requiring food establishments in Maryland to display a poster relating to food allergy awareness that includes information regarding the risk of an allergic reaction. We at MenuTrinfo know this first hand since we have created that poster with Food Allergy Research & Education known as FARE. By implementing these laws, food establishments are now held accountable for the safety of their customers.
While these regulations could reshape the dining landscape in Maryland, restaurant operators throughout the country should be thinking about increased and improved allergy awareness training. Last month, I talked about the importance of food safety training and we recently held our first Train the Trainer educational course to keep food safety trainers up-to-date on the latest best practices. To further your understanding of the issues, here are the three biggest allergen-related food safety concerns and how you can help mitigate them:
1. Food Handling and Storage: When it comes to eliminating potential cross contamination issues surrounding the service of allergen-free menu items, food handling and storage plays a big role. Designate separate storage areas for foods that are allergen-free and have special areas in your kitchen restricted as allergen-free counter space. If, however, your preparation space has to overlap, clean all countertops and utensils prior to use for allergen-free menu items. This will create a safe environment for meal preparation and will decrease the chances of cross-contamination. Train your staff on safe food handling and storage methods and communicate this specialty training to your guests.
2. Cross contact: Cross contamination occurs when food that does not contain an allergen comes in contact with ingredients that do contain allergens during the preparation, cooking, storage or serving process. In addition to safe food handling and storage practices, one of the best ways to avoid cross-contamination is to properly train the restaurant managers, cooks and servers responsible for guaranteeing your guests safety. Hang posters in your kitchen of the "big eight" allergens and teach your staff how to properly identify when and if potential cross-contact has occurred. You should also teach your staff how to identify and respond to a possible allergic reactions.
3. Ingredient knowledge: While manufacturers do not have to list the individual ingredients of the products they sell, many will voluntarily provide this information on labels or upon request. Train your restaurant staff to know the components of each dish and how to properly communicate this knowledge to diners who have indicated allergen sensitivities. Your restaurant staff should also know the ingredients of each dish and how to properly communicate the exclusion of an ingredient to your cooks. When it comes to your menu items, power is knowledge. The more your staff knows about the product ingredients from suppliers, how meals are prepared and what goes into them, the more your diners will trust you and your restaurant.