January 2004 Edition
Healthcare: Taking a Bite out of Food Allergens

While a peanut butter sandwich and a cold glass of milk may sound like the perfect snack, this tasty twosome - and food allergens like them - can cause some sensitive food lovers more grief than gratification.

A food allergen is a product or ingredient whose naturally occurring proteins may provoke severe - even fatal - reactions in a food allergic person. These proteins cannot be eliminated through cooking or baking and produce a wide range of immune system responses, from a tingling sensation in the mouth and difficulty breathing to abdominal cramps and loss of consciousness. Usually appearing within two hours, but sometimes within a few minutes after ingestion, these potentially life-threatening reactions require immediate medical attention.

It is estimated that between one and three percent of the adult population, and one and seven percent of children have a food allergy. The most common food allergens in adults are shellfish (crayfish, shrimp, lobster, crab), peanuts, tree nuts, fish and eggs. For children the most prevalent allergens are eggs, milk, and peanuts. In some cases children outgrow their allergies especially reactions to milk and soy, though they do not usually outgrow allergies to peanuts.

For individuals with an allergy eating out at a restaurant is especially challenging and as an operator you'll want to do whatever you can to ensure they have a safe and satisfying dining experience.

One of the easiest ways of ensuring that your customers don’t ingest a potential allergen is to ensure that servers are aware of the ingredients used to create your menu items. That way when customers ask, servers have the answer. Keeping a recipe binder which is updated by the chef, will ensure that servers can clearly identify the ingredients in each dish. Something as simple as an egg glaze brushed on pastry can be a problem unless it is identified.

The Allergy/Asthma Information Association recommends developing an Allergy Chart. This chart lists menu items across the top and potential allergens along the side making it easy to identify possible hidden allergens in foods.

Most importantly establishing an allergy policy can ensure that all food allergy inquiries reach the right ears. Make it policy for food allergy inquiries to go through a designated individual so that no server can mistakenly give false information to a customer.

In the kitchen, safe food handling that avoids cross contamination should be the norm, but in the case of potential allergens keeping work surfaces and utensils clean is essential.

Ensure your customers enjoy a safe and satisfying meal - take a bite out of food allergens. ¨

What's an Allergy?

An allergy is an abnormal reaction by your body to substances to which you are sensitized. These substances are called allergens, and an allergic person produces antibodies against these allergens. Each time the allergic person comes in contact with an allergen after that first contact, certain cells in the body release chemical substances called mediators, like histamine and leukotrienes which cause the reactions such as tingling, itching etc…(Source: The Lung Association)

A food intolerance should not be confused with a food allergy. Food intolerance may be characterized by gas, bloating or another type of unpleasant reaction to food but it is not an allergic reaction.

Allergy Aware Program

Developed by The Canadian Restaurant Association, in cooperation with the Department of Health and Welfare Canada, the Allergy/Asthma Information Association, and the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology; the Allergy Aware Program attempts to educate consumers about the presence of food allergens in restaurant foods. The Program allows approved operators to display an Allergy Aware symbol in their restaurant window. To qualify for the program restaurateurs must provide ingredient information such as a food allergy chart for at least three main menu items, or complete ingredient information for at least three menu items or special meals that are pre-packed to provide diners with a precise list of ingredients.

Allergic reactions to food can include any of the following symptoms:


  • Tingling in the mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain (cramps)


  • Rash
  • Eczema
  • Redness
  • Change in skin colour
  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Swelling

Air Passages

  • Runny nose, sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Wheezing
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Coughing, choking, gagging

Source: Allergy Asthma Information Association, www.aaia.ca

Sysco Helps Stop Cross-Contamination In Its Tracks

Protecting customers from the harmful side effects triggered by an allergic reaction is an important food safety concern for Sysco, and the reason we require all our foodservice suppliers to establish Allergen Control Programs. Developed by the Sysco Quality Assurance team, the guidelines set forth in these programs help prevent the cross-contamination of the following food allergens:

Eggs Milk

Peanuts Tree Nuts

Soy Wheat

Sesame Seeds Seafood (fish and shellfish)

Any manufacturing location utilizing these allergens in any area of their facility must adhere to the minimum allergen control guidelines required by Sysco, including:

  • Establishing a transportation policy that outlines proper receiving and storage controls
  • Ensuring allergens and non-allergens are produced safely, with precautions including the segregation of equipment lines or production schedules
  • Using plain language to clearly identify food allergens on ingredient bins and packaging
  • Training new employees and retraining all employees annually

From identifying these culinary culprits to routinely reviewing suppliers' Allergen Control programs, the Sysco Quality Assurance team helps safeguard you and your food-allergic diners from allergens before they even reach your operation.