Free food allergy e-training program designed for cooks and chefs

A free, potentially life-saving online food allergy training program for cooks and chefs, funded by the Australian Government Department of Health, has today been launched by the National Allergy Strategy, a partnership between the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) and Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia (A&AA).

Developed in conjunction with chefs and cooks with experience in commercial kitchens, “All About Allergens: The next step for cooks and chefs” focuses on food preparation, handling and storage, and highlights the importance of effective communication between the kitchen and other staff and consumers with food allergy.

“Food allergy rates are continuing to rise in Australia, and we know that the majority of fatalities from food-induced anaphylaxis occur when people are eating out,” says Associate Professor Richard Loh, co-chair of the National Allergy Strategy and past President of ASCIA.  “So that is our area of focus with the All About Allergens online training program. We had great uptake of the first stage of the free All About Allergens program for people in the food service industry, so we’ve developed this next stage specifically for cooks and chefs to maximise their understanding of food allergies and hopefully reduce the number of food-induced allergic reactions we see.”

The first All About Allergens online food allergy training program has seen almost 11,000 food service industry workers from all over Australia enrol in the course since its launch in July 2017. This next stage of the training program provides information specific to cooks and chefs and aims to educate them on the safest way to handle, prepare, cook and store food to prevent food-related allergic reactions.

There are two versions of the new training program; one for general food services such as restaurants and cafes, and one for camp food services, such as school camps or sports camps. Free to access for all users and delivered in a convenient online format that can be completed at the user’s convenience, All About Allergens: The next step for cooks and chefs has been developed for anyone providing a food service.

Martin Latter, Group Director of Kitchens for AEG Ogden, who has managed some of Australia’s largest commercial kitchens and has even cooked for royalty, welcomed the new training program, saying, “It can be very difficult to manage all of the different dietary requests that come through a large kitchen, and often customers don’t have any concept of the type of pressure cooks and chefs are under and make requests at the last minute.

“Over my many years of working in large kitchens I’ve often seen little things happen that can put people with food allergies at serious risk, like not using the same utensils across different foods, or wearing gloves for hygiene purposes but not understanding the cross-contamination risk.”

“This training program will go a long way towards minimising the risk of food allergen cross-contamination by spelling out, in simple terms, the best way to reduce risk and help to keep our customers safe. It also provides some great resources and templates that can be used in commercial kitchens to help reduce the risk.”

Maria Said, CEO of A&AA, said, “Hospital admissions for food-induced allergic reactions have increased fivefold over the past 20 yearsii, and fatalities from food-induced anaphylaxis are increasing by about 7 per centiii every year. While we know that food allergen management in kitchens needs to improve, we’re certainly not wanting to point the finger at cooks and chefs. What we do want to do is encourage a sense of shared responsibility when it comes to preventing episodes of anaphylaxis and food-related allergic reactions. Customers with allergies are primarily responsible for their health needs and need to advise food service staff about their allergies, preferably in advance, and kitchen staff need to take their food allergy seriously and understand how to manage those requests.”

Another factor that the National Allergy Strategy has highlighted as essential in protecting consumers is initiating a mandatory Food Safety Supervisor program in all states, that includes food allergy management. Currently the role of Food Safety Supervisors is not standardised nationally and are only mandatory in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, and the focus is primarily on microbial contamination, with little focus on food allergy management, if any.

“There is a real opportunity to expand the role of food safety supervisors to educate and advise on best practice food allergy management,” says Maria Said.

Jaclyn Jauhianan, a 24-year-old university student who is allergic to honey and at risk of anaphylaxis to tree nuts, is pleased to see more being done to educate those working in food service about food allergies, saying “I dream about the day when I can eat out with my family and friends without having to be on high alert about my allergies even after I disclose them. When I can trust that the kitchen staff have taken my dietary requirements seriously and haven’t just brushed me off as being ‘fussy’. I know it is my responsibility to clearly communicate, but there definitely needs to be more awareness and education about managing food allergies in the food services industry.”

“It really needs to come from both sides,” continues Ms Said. “We urge customers with food allergies to contact the establishment about their food allergy requirements in advance when making the booking, and then to double check with staff when they arrive that their food allergy requirements have been understood and can be managed. We encourage all cooks and chefs to complete the new All About Allergens training course to ensure they understand their role in preventing food-related allergic reactions, including preventable deaths.”

Common causes of food-related allergic reactions in commercial settings:

  • Wait staff not communicating the customer’s food allergy to cooks and chefs
  • Food service staff presuming a menu choice is fine without checking ingredients
  • A chef or cook not checking ingredients in a garnish
  • Using utensils across multiple food types, including knives, tongs, spoons, etc
  • Not checking the ingredients label on pre-prepared products, e.g. mayonnaise, tomato sauce
  • Suppliers changing ingredients without informing the kitchen staff
  • Mistakes in communications: e.g. delivering special dietary requests to the wrong customer
  • Customers not informing kitchen staff about their allergy
  • Customers not clarifying whether their request is due to an allergy, an intolerance or that they simply dislike something i.e asking, “Does this have egg in it?”

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