Restaurant staff know surprisingly little about food allergies, and attitudes to customer health risks are often poor, according to a study of nearly 300 employees in Germany.
The report, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that only a third of respondents could accurately identify three food allergens.
And less than half of employees – including waiters, chefs, managers and kitchen hands – answered all true-or-false questions correctly.
For instance, nearly one fifth of staff believed erroneously that customers with food allergies can safely consume a small amount of that food, that cooking can prevent food from causing allergies, and that removing an allergen from a meal already plated is safe.
The researchers note that although there are no established cut-off scores to define food allergy knowledge, “it may reasonably be suggested that any single misconception is a cause of concern”.
The most common incorrect belief – held by more than a third of respondents – was that if a customer is having an allergic reaction they should be served cold water to dilute the allergen.
“This is a misbelief which may have dramatic consequences,” says first author Adrian Loerbroks from the University of Düsseldorf, “for instance when medical treatment is delayed”.
While many symptoms of food allergy are mild – albeit unpleasant – such as itchy skin rash, nausea and breathing difficulty, some kick in rapidly and can be life-threatening.
Another concern was that four in 10 staff reportedly thought some customers’ food allergy reports were not true.
“This may indicate that requests of food allergic customers are wrongfully interpreted as personal preferences,” says Loerbroks.
“It is very important, though, to distinguish food allergies from food intolerances or dietary lifestyle choices.
“Such requests need to be considered for medical reasons and to ensure customer safety.”
The prevalence of food allergies has grown in the past 30 years. Allergic food reactions affect up to one in 10 people, predominantly in industrialised countries. Common culprits are peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, egg, milk, wheat, soy and seeds.
The study’s findings are not unique – the authors cite other reports that have identified similar misconceptions about food allergies by restaurant staff.
They also raise concerns that food handling courses often do not include information about allergy risks.
“It thus seems that most of the available training resources are ineffective,” notes Loerbroks.
Until the situation is remedied, the authors warn people with food allergies to be aware that food service staff’s knowledge may be flawed – even when they claim otherwise.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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