by Rachael Alford
According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) there are 15 million people in America with food allergies. Chances are your meeting and event participants are among them. Although there are more than 150 foods that are known to cause allergic reactions, the top eight allergens - wheat, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, dairy, eggs, fish and shellfish - cause more than 90% of all allergic reactions.
Since January 21, 2013, severe food allergies have been considered a disability under federal law. As a venue, meeting or event planner this means that you can be held legally responsible if you fail to accommodate dietary allergies for your attendees.
What you can do:
Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, President & Chief Connecting Officer at Thrive! Meetings & Events suggests learning practical strategies to ensure attendee safety. She warns that even with the best planning ingesting reactions may occur if someone eats the food they are allergic to accidentally due to mislabeling, hidden ingredients or mishandling. Any cross-contamination has the potential to cause death; even trace amounts of an allergen can cause a reaction.
Proactively managing the needs of these guests will not only provide a better guest experience, you will also save money by including an allergy clause in the food and beverage contract. Get in the habit of observing the food preparation areas
during initial site inspections. Provide written allergy information to the food and beverage manager as well as the chef.
Require all registrants to complete a preconference questionnaire to identify participant dietary restrictions. Ask all with potentially lethal reactions to provide a Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan. This written document should outline the recommended treatment in case of an allergic reaction and include emergency contact information. Be sure to designate a person to manage the plan and take action, if necessary.
Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), you can prepare for pop-up participants or needs not conveyed by having prepackaged foods on hand. The mandate requires the labeling of foods containing major food allergens.
Tracy also shared George’s story, who told her that at the last conference he attended, he:
- Was not asked about allergies during registration
- Called the association to tell them that he had an allergy to seafood
- The meeting planner called back to ask why she needed to be concerned
- His response: I will die if I get near seafood
- She replied that “no one will die on her watch”
General Allergies and Asthma
60 million Americans suffer from allergies and asthma, says the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), which is why asking the right questions is vitally important when selecting lodging or a venue for participants that include allergy sufferers.
What you need to know:
According to a 2010 survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association, 38 percent of hotels are billed as having hypoallergenic rooms and allergy-friendly offerings. But allergy-friendly terminology can vary greatly from hotel to hotel. Many people with allergies are also sensitive to scented products. This can include anything from scents being piped into common areas to hygiene products provided in the en suite. Also, be sure not to place fragrant items in any swag bags without them being completely sealed.
What you can do:
Important factors to keep in mind during site selection when inquiring about allergy-friendly rooms:
Look for smoke-free hotels. Even if the guest requests a non-smoking room, smoke from other rooms may get into the air system, affecting the air quality in non-smoking rooms.
Is there a pet policy? If pets are allowed, the pets in the rooms and common areas can leave behind dander that will cause problems for allergic guests.
What type of bedding is available? For asthmatics and many allergy sufferers, feather pillows and down comforters can cause problems. Find out if the hotel has other natural or synthetic fiber bedding options, as well as hypoallergenic coverings.
Ask how the rooms are cleaned. Find out if they use HEPA vacuum cleaners or deep steam cleaning methods. Are they cleaning with Green Seal Certified® products?
What type of air purifiers are used? Find out if the air is purified via the hotel’s entire air system or if air purifiers are in individual rooms. Air purifiers will help with removing dust, mold, bacteria and other potential allergens.
Is there scent piped in to the common areas? Are there air fresheners or sprays used in the sleeping rooms? Are the facial and bath tissues fragrance-free?
- One guest speaker that I spoke with said that she specially requested a synthetic pillow as she is asthmatic and allergic to down feathers. Although the pillows felt like feathers, the front desk and housekeeping assured her that the pillows were all hypoallergenic and synthetic. She woke up in the morning with her eyes swollen shut. Instead of speaking at the event she spent the day in the emergency room.
Some people restrict their diet due to religious or moral reasons. However, religious dietary practices vary greatly by adherence. Don’t automatically assume that you know what foods are appropriate to serve without first asking the attendee.
What you need to know:
Traditionally, there are no set dietary restrictions for all Christians. Some Christians refrain from eating meat on Fridays during the Lenten season. Other denominations have restrictions regarding caffeine and alcohol intake.
If the kitchen is not typically used for preparing Kosher meals, seek out a local caterer to provide a certified Kosher meal for the attendee. The typical Jewish diet includes:
- No pork or shellfish.
- Refrain from eating meat and dairy products at the same meal
- No alcohol (unless Kosher wine)
- One must wait six hours after eating meat before consuming any dairy products
As adherence to Halal dietary practices vary, consult with the participant to determine necessity. Again, if the kitchen is not typically used for preparing Halal meals, seek out a local caterer to provide a certified Halal meal for the attendee. Additionally, keep in mind that during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Typically, Muslims do not eat:
- Carnivorous animals
- Pork or pork products
- Sea animals that do not have fins or scales
- Alcohol (including extracts)
Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs
Most Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs are vegetarians.
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry or fish
- Ovo-Vegetarians do not eat dairy, meat, poultry or fish
- Lacto-Vegetarians do not eat eggs, meat, poultry or fish
- Vegans do not eat any animal foods, eggs or dairy products
- I once ordered several turkey po’boy sandwiches for Muslim participants at an event in New Orleans after being told they did not need full Halal accommodations. When I went into the kitchen to check on these separate orders, I was appalled to see ham piled high on top of the turkey. When I inquired, the chef just smiled and stated that he forgot but would take the ham off right away. I knew the attendees needed new sandwiches but the chef refused to make them and I refused to let the now ham-less sandwiches be served! Needless to say, I will never book that venue again.
Dealing with food allergies and restrictions at an event
Stuckrath gives us her ways to deal with food allergies and restrictions at an event:
Ask for the information in the registration system. Instead of asking an open-ended question, use a check box method:
- Do you have any dietary needs we need to accommodate while you’re attending our event?
- Celiac Disease or gluten-sensitivity
- For this section, have a pop-up box open up with the top ones listed and with an open-ended box for others. This will help you separate dislikes from those who have food allergies
Ensure you communicate with your foodservice provider in advance of the meeting so they can be prepared with something that not only is allergy free, but also so they can properly prepare it in the back of the house. Have them give you a separate menu for the food allergic persons explaining what they are serving versus “we’ll take care of it” or telling them to ask their server. This ensures they are aware and will handle it. Without it, guests are left unsure and unsafe. If the chef is unsure on how to handle the request, have them talk to the guest directly.
Communicate back to food allergic guests how their meals will be handled onsite:
- Will you be giving them cards at check-in that IDs them as needing a special plate?
- Will you be introducing them to the banquet captains?
- Will buffets be labeled?
- Will buffets be avoided by giving them their own plated meal?
- Be sure to tell all your food service providers - not just the hotel. If you have offsite catered events, include them in the discussion.
Don’t neglect these attendees! Food is essential for them to enjoy your event and be as vibrant as other guests. Don’t leave them hungry or disgruntled - it can cause a bad impression on your event.