Restaurants are cracking down on an issue that has long been very serious — deadly serious, in fact — for many diners: food allergies.
Food allergies run the gamut from sensitivities to outright intolerances. Severe ones can send sufferers into anaphylactic shock, while others may simply result in an itchy, unsightly rash. Guests who are exposed to an allergen may leave the restaurant in mild discomfort, at best — or on a stretcher, not breathing, at worst. And it doesn’t take much: Simply cooking food on the same surface where allergens have been prepared, or stirring a pot with the same spoon, could be enough to kill someone.
Even though most people know their allergies (or those of their children) and carry their own personal EpiPen in case of exposure, it is obviously in the restaurant’s best interest not to expose customers to ingredients that could harm them.
For their part, customers have learned to be their own advocates when it comes to allergies and will speak up to make sure their server knows if there could be an issue with certain ingredients. Yet in a busy kitchen during the dinner rush, keeping track of special ingredient requests can be easier said than done — especially with some customers presenting food preferences as actual medical intolerances.
The kitchen has no way of knowing if they are dealing with a picky customer who simply prefers not to eat gluten because they’re worried about getting wheat belly … or someone with Celiac disease whose body will treat the gluten as poison. So, they have to treat every case with equal caution.
What Consumers Can Do
That’s why products like the new allergen-testing keychain from Harvard Medical School are still necessary, even if only for the peace of mind they deliver … although field tests show it’s not just peace of mind. The device is finding offending ingredients in sources that should have been “clean.”
The iEAT keychain — short for “integrated exogenous antigen testing system” — allows users to dab a small sample of their food onto a single-use slide and insert it into the device for analysis. It takes around 10 minutes to analyze the sample, which is certainly long enough for the food to get cold — but, hey, better than going into anaphylactic shock.
Ally, a similar device developed by a design engineering student at London’s Brunel University, integrates with a mobile app and lets users know if their food contains allergens within 60 seconds — but, so far, it only works with lactose, whereas the iEAT keychain can spot peanuts, hazelnuts, wheat, milk or eggs, all in much smaller quantities than a traditional lab test. Another allergen tester, Nima, offers similar capabilities for those with gluten allergies.
There are also mobile apps that can help people with allergies (or their parents) choose restaurants and menu items that are relatively safe, as well as guide them through home cooking and grocery shopping.
What Restaurants Can Do
iEAT’s discovery of gluten in a “gluten-free” salad and egg protein in beer just goes to show that deadly allergens could be hiding anywhere. Which brings us back to the kitchen.
It’s understandable that slip-ups happen: There are so many different allergies — shellfish, tree nuts, gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, strawberries — and so many different degrees to which they can affect a person. More people have food allergies than ever before, and many who suffer from one are also suffering from others. It’s a lot to keep track of and a lot of responsibility. But far from being an excuse, the preponderance and complexity of food allergies should be cause for even greater vigilance.
OpenTable, the restaurant reservation booking platform, has been the most recent restaurant technology to roll out a guest preferences and notes feature to ensure that, wherever they go, customers’ dietary needs are met and their safety and health are protected.
The feature, dubbed “Guest Share,” tracks information across restaurant locations within a chain. This is an upgrade from a previous guest notes feature that has been part of the OpenTable platform since it launched in 1998.
The initial feature enabled a single restaurant to keep track of important information about regulars in order to provide them the best service — and that extends beyond food allergies to include other restrictions, such as a vegetarian diet; food preferences; other preferences, such as seating and beverage choice; and any relevant connections, such as a long-time friendship with the restaurant’s owner.
Sharing that information across locations simply means that those same guests can now enjoy the same star treatment whenever they visit a related establishment. Everyone’s worried about privacy, but in this case, the restaurant technology providing more information is a definite benefit to the customer (and also helps the restaurant avoid the liability and bad PR of serving food with allergens carelessly).
OpenTable’s platform does not share payment details such as itemized spending or tip amounts — it is only used to better serve the customer, according to a report by Food & Wine. Data may also help restaurant groups build better, more detailed loyalty programs.