When cooking for customers who have food allergies or are gluten-sensitive, you need to be especially aware of how you store ingredients and the prep techniques you use.
“An absolutely minuscule amount of gluten is enough to cause a reaction in somebody with celiac disease,” says Rachel Begun, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That reaction could cause them to be sick for days or even weeks afterward. With food allergies, “it’s the protein that causes the reaction,” says Sherry Coleman Collins, Senior Marketing Manager for the National Peanut Board. The reactions can range from minor skin irritations to life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Cross-contamination can happen easily in the food prep area, particularly where flour is being used. “We all know what flour looks like when it gets puffed up into the air,” says Begun. “It’s a fine mist that tends to settle on surfaces. That’s where cross-contamination can be very likely.”
“The risk [of cross-contamination] is never zero,” says Collins. “The idea is to reduce the risk as much as possible.”
Keeping it separate
When storing ingredients, the key is separation—keeping the allergenic or gluten-containing ingredients far away from other ingredients. Separate containers and equipment, or even a separate storage area, provide the optimal solution. If that’s not practical, Begun suggests storing gluten-free or non-allergenic ingredients on one wall of shelving and keeping the other ingredients on an opposite wall. Another system involves separating ingredients in a storage room or cooler with a plastic curtain. While not foolproof, it’s inexpensive and provides a visible reminder to staff.
At the very least, “having really tightly closed storage containers is essential,” notes Collins. Clear labeling is equally important, especially when dealing with kitchen staff who are untrained or non-English speaking. Using a color-coded system (similar to HACCP colors) can help differentiate allergenic ingredients, as can actual pictures on the containers. Operators may also consider investing in a mobile cart to store equipment and ingredients dedicated to preparing food for gluten-sensitive and allergic guests.
On the market
Manufacturers have products that can help store and separate allergenic and gluten-free ingredients.
- New fountain jars from Server Products come in bright orange (a non-HACCP color) to identify allergen-causing ingredients.
- Label manufacturers, including Daymark and Dot It, produce adhesive labels for storage containers or prep areas. The labels feature check-mark boxes to indicate “no peanuts,” “gluten-free” or other allergen cautions. Ecolab’s Allergen Awareness DuraLabels attach directly to diners’ plates to assure them of allergen-free prep.
- The Allergen
- Saf-T-Zone kit from San Jamar is a portable case with cutting board, chef’s knife, tongs and turner, all in distinctive purple (another non-HACCP color).