First, it was Chipotle. Now it's Panera Bread. It seems that no brand, large or small, is immune to the many health-related food crises in the United States today.
While Chipotle is working to recover from its food safety issues earlier this year, Panera Bread is facing a $500,000 lawsuit after a then 5-year-old child allegedly ate a sandwich from the chain that contained peanut butter.
The girl's family claims in the suit that employees at the store where the alleged incident took place were alerted to the youngster's peanut allergy via a message sent through the restaurant's online ordering system. The suit alleges that restaurant employees failed to keep the child's sandwich peanut butter-free. Instead, the suit claims peanut butter was mistakenly added to the girl's grilled cheese sandwich order.
The case highlights the growing number of consumers who have allergies or other dietary restrictions that must be properly addressed by everyone involved in food service. In the case of the aforementioned incident at the Panera Bread location, that restaurant's manager has said that a "language issue" was at the root of the problem and that the Panera employee involved thought the customer wanted peanut butter added to the sandwich.
It likely does not help the chain's case that the same Panera Bread location named in the lawsuit was involved in a similar alleged incident several weeks earlier. This allegation was posted to the franchisee's Facebook page, according to news reports.
Addressing one of the nation's biggest health threats in your restaurant
From my point of view, food allergies are one of this nation's biggest public health concerns.
According to foodallergy.org, 1 in 13 children today has a food allergy. The recent case at Panera Bread is further proof that restaurant operators should take a strong, comprehensive and proactive approach when it comes to protecting diners' lives and health.
Food allergy training for operators and their staff is one way restaurant operators can get it right with their diners. This is not only possible, but also necessary in every restaurant's training plan.
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that my company is one of several that provide this service by offering an American National Standards Institute-accredited program. The NRA also has a ServSafe Allergen program which I helped to develop.
Another resource is Food Allergy Research and Education or FARE, which created its SafeFARE program of tools for individuals with food allergies, as well as restaurant operators and staff. All of the aforementioned programs can help create a safer dining experience and better quality of life for those with food allergies.
Some states have requirements, too
States often set their own requirements regarding restaurants and food allergen safety. In Michigan, for instance, allergen training from either our program or that of ServSafe is now mandated and must be completed by Jan. 1, 2017.
While Michigan is the first state to require this type of training, other states have legislation pending that would require similar measures or are planning to make such requirements mandatory in the future.
I believe that 2017 will be a year when many government entities mandate allergen training and regulations. This will be especially likely if we see additional incidents like those that allegedly occurred at Panera. If you are considering such a program for your restaurants, seek an ongoing plan for new and existing employees that will ensure they know:
It takes layers of training for operators and employees to fully understand what allergens are, what impact they can have on affected customers, and how best to respond to an allergen outbreak. This holds true for employees at every career stage and level.
Protecting customers' lives is the responsibility of every employee in any restaurant. Your restaurant's reputation depends on it.