The Centers for Disease Control reported that the number of U.S. children who have food allergies rose by 50 percent from 1997 to 2011, and, according to a 2012 Mayo Clinic Study, celiac disease is more common than previously thought.

The result is a diner who looks—and eats—very differently than in years past. In the past, picky eaters were just that. An operator could choose whether to honor their requests. Today a request to substitute peanuts with raisins must be taken seriously—or your organization could be facing more than a customer service issue. Today, ignoring a substitution request could land a guest in the emergency room, or your organization in a lawsuit or class action, as was the case with Lesley University in Massachusetts, which was required to modify to its meal plan to allow students with food allergies to take advantage of it.

The bottom line is this: food safety in today’s public health environment means much more than ensuring the staff has clean hands. To be properly prepared, we recommend the following three steps:

1. Conduct careful menu analysis, including reverse ingredient lookup, with an eye toward top allergens and the growing population of gluten-free diners.

It’s been nearly a decade since the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act established the requirement that the eight most common food allergens (milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat) be declared on labels, and the trend toward education continues. This year FDA issued a final rule defining “gluten-free” for food labeling and just this past month the state of Maryland reviewed regulations that would require posting of the top eight allergens in restaurant kitchens. While the transparency is helpful to the millions of food allergy sufferers in the U.S., allergens are still hiding in many restaurant dishes due to misinformation or cross contact.

Experts such as registered dietician Elaine Magee advise foodservice operators to conduct a careful menu analysis and have the list of ingredients for their various menu items available in a booklet or binder for either servers or customers to review. When conducting menu analysis, it is important to consider potential exposure to allergens at every step in the making of that dish, and to consider allergen “aliases.” For example, if cooking spray is used, it may contain soy lecithin, which should be listed as containing soy just to be safe. Top allergy aliases can be downloaded at Menutrinfo.com or are available through many departments of public health.

2. Identify recipe changes that allow more gluten-free or allergen-free options.

Once operators conduct a complete menu analysis, we recommend identifying dishes that are allergen or gluten-free, or dishes that can be easily modified to be served to an allergic diner. Here it is critical to examine dishes down to the subparticle ingredient to look for any traces of gluten or allergens, particularly as FDA rolls out its gluten-free labeling standards. In my time at MenuTrinfo, I have had the pleasure of working with a variety of clients to certify their gluten-free menus. And 90 percent of the time, we find a gluten-containing ingredient lurking somewhere. Gluten can be found nearly anywhere, from barley in chicken stock to barley flour that’s used in “natural smoke flavoring” in BBQ sauce.

The importance of employee training

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3. Expand training on food handling procedures to ensure safe delivery of meals to diners with food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities.

A bill recently introduced by the Maryland legislature would make it mandatory for every restaurant in the state to have a trained staff member on premise and available to provide guidance as to possible food allergens used as ingredients in menu items. If successful, the bill could be a tipping point for similar laws nationwide, making allergy training a requirement.

Even if allergy training does not become state law across the country, in this new environment operators should train a full range of staff including managers, chefs, line cooks and servers about the importance of topics such as cross contamination, food preparation and the policies needed to protect both diners and the business. A number of prepackaged programs exist, or operators can design their own training. By expanding the knowledge level of the full staff, they can work together to deliver safe products to allergic diners. The back-of-house staff should know how to prepare safe products and the front-house staff should fully understand what is and isn’t safe for diners with special concerns.

A great example comes from Bill Moore, director of safety and security at Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, which runs restaurants and foodservice outlets at colleges and universities; hospitals and senior care centers, corporate dining and a professional sports arena. Moore started to research and work on a company-wide food allergy program for Eat’n Park in 2005 after he saw an increase in diners with special dietary needs. Modeling his company's allergy program after a program at Disney, he has participated in and led extensive allergy training for his organization. Today the allergy program is the number one compliment received through the customer service line.

As more and more laws are signed, more regulations rolled out and more lawsuits won, operators can fall into fear or dread. But companies like Eat’n Park have done it right by flipping the fear and seizing the opportunity to attract and increase loyalty among customers by providing a safe, option-filled dining experience.

Betsy Craig is the c.e.o. and founder of MenuTrinfo, which provides nutritionals for restaurant kitchens.