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Real-life lessons in allergen safety

March 23rd , 2021 by

You may have heard in the news recently that a Mediterranean restaurant in Wollongong, New South Wales has been fined $105,000 and ordered to pay prosecutor costs after staff served a patron hummus – despite the man advising he was allergic to sesame seeds.

The staff member said she forgot hummus contained sesame seed paste / tahini.  She didn’t discuss the man’s allergies with kitchen staff, and took it upon herself to formulate an entrée plate to meet his dietary requirements.

But was the staff member really to blame? Or does the responsibility for this tragedy lie with the owners/managers for not having a formal allergen procedure and failing to train their staff in its execution?

There are some important lessons to be learned from this case – which, like most food safety incidents, was entirely avoidable.

Apart from the devastating loss of life, the incident will also have a long-term psychological impact on the staff member involved, who said that learning about the customer’s death was “one of the worst and definitely the hardest moments of my life.”

Not surprisingly, the court found that the restaurant’s informal systems left staff “to their own devices” when dealing with allergens and food safety management.

The closest thing the restaurant had to an allergen procedure was a basic handwritten allergen sheet, which staff were required to check before sending orders to the kitchen. Not only is this incredibly risky for any business, it’s irresponsible towards both customers and staff.

Needless to say, the restaurant has been instructed to revise its allergen procedure and provide all staff with appropriate training. But there are two more things that establishments can do to keep customers with allergens safe:

1. Implement ‘daily toolbox’ safety talks for staff

These are brief safety discussions or briefings at the start of each shift. They only take 5-10 minutes, and help to raise awareness of food safety risks associated with their duties. Allergens should be covered in every session – reinforcing the correct procedure and any menu changes that may impact upon this.

Daily toolbox sessions can be scheduled as a task in your MonikaPrime digital food safety system (if you have one), that must be signed off / completed by a Manager.

2. Use a digital allergen management tool

Rather than making adjustments to menu items at a customer’s request, which can lead to mistakes and mix ups in the kitchen, ensure your menu has options for people with common allergens. Then give your staff a digital tool to help them suggest menu items based on people’s dietary requirements.

For example, you can set up your menu in your MonikaPrime digital food safety system and associate them with any allergens they contain. When taking orders, staff can then enter a customer’s allergens into the allergens function of the Monika Smart PA to see which items are safe for them to eat.

This arms them with the knowledge to be able to answer customer’s questions and puts the onus on the customer to choose a menu item that is safe for them.

Being fined $105,000 is tough, but the impacts of this incident extend far beyond monetary concerns. For the Samaras Lebanese restaurant and its staff, the death of a customer will no doubt leave them reeling for a long time to come.

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