How to Avoid Food Allergy Pitfalls in Your Commercial Kitchen


A food allergy is an immune response or allergic reaction to a naturally occurring protein in any food. While a customer may be allergic to any type of food, there are eight foods that cause 90 percent of all food allergy reactions. These most common allergens are referred to as the Big Eight or Top Eight. They are: cow’s milk, soy, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts.

Examples of Allergens and Foods Containing Allergens

While you might think food allergens are easy to spot, they can be hidden within ingredients. It’s also important to know what types of foods are included in each food allergen group. Below is a partial list of common foods containing the allergen, but please note it is not exhaustive and additional foods do contain allergens.

Cow’s milk: milk, cream, butter, cheese, etc.

Soy: soy beans (also called edamame), tofu, tempeh, miso, tamari, soy sauce, and many ingredients contain soybean oil

Eggs: while eggs are easy to spot in their whole form, they are often a part of salad dressings, mayonnaise, meringue, ice cream and many baked goods

Wheat: wheat is found in breads, cereals, crackers, pasta, couscous, flour, spelt, wheat grass, and many more items. Some unexpected sources of wheat are soy sauce, beer, breaded foods, and more. See a complete list at

Fish: there are many fish a person may be allergic to, including salmon, tuna, halibut, swordfish, haddock and many more. For a complete list, visit this resource at

Shellfish: crab, lobster, shrimp, crawfish, prawns, krill, barnacle, etc.

Peanuts: peanuts are found in whole form, peanut butter, mixed nuts, lupine (a common gluten free flour), peanut oil, arachis oil and more

Tree nuts: tree nut allergens include many nuts such as almond, cashew, filbert/hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pistachio, walnut and many more. Some unexpected sources of tree nuts include marzipan, nut butters and nut milks, pesto, flavored coffees, cereals and crackers, cold cuts such as mortadella, as well as alcoholic beverages (gin, amaretto, etc.), many baked goods, ice creams and other desserts.

Sesame: Sesame is another allergen worth mentioning as it is the ninth most common food allergy. Sesame is not always called out on food labels. It’s often found in tahini, hummus, sesame oil, salad dressings and marinades, as well as breads and crackers.

Visit for more information about each of the most common allergens.

Sign up for ServSafe course at Alto-Hartley

How to Identify An Allergic Reaction And What To Do

Allergic reactions range from mild to severe, life-threatening reactions that have the potential to be fatal within minutes. It is important to be able to spot a food allergy reaction in order to act quickly and dial 9-1-1.

Reactions may include one or more of the following symptoms: hives, swelling, itchy throat, throat tightness, hoarse sounding voice, coughing/wheezing, nausea, vomiting, stomach upset, light-headedness, intense anxiety, racing heart, weakness, and loss of consciousness.

People experiencing a severe food allergy reaction need to be treated with an epinephrine auto-injector as soon as possible. Benadryl is also helpful during a reaction. If a customer experiences a severe reaction or treats themselves with epinephrine (also referred to as Epi-Pen and Auvi-Q) it is important to call 9-1-1 right away.

How to Avoid Cross Contamination in Your Kitchen

A food allergic person does not need to eat a large amount of the food to have a reaction. Even a speck of the allergen, or having food touch a contaminated surface, can cause a severe reaction.

In order to avoid cross-contamination, workstations, cutting boards equipment, and utensils need to be regularly cleaned and sanitized. The sanitary practices you already have in place, including handwashing and good personal hygiene will also help to prevent cross contamination. Do not allow ready-to-eat foods to touch surfaces that have come into contact with other foods.

It is important for both servers and kitchen staff to know which menu items contain allergens. Food allergies need to be properly communicated to the kitchen, and special steps need to be taken when preparing the order.

Below is on outline of ServSafe guidelines for serving customers with food allergies and prepping food for customers with food allergies. For complete information, review pages 4-10 and 4-11 of this linked ServSafe Guide to Preventing Cross-Contamination.

[CONTACT US to learn how to sign up for a ServSafe course in Alexandria, Virgina].


  • Tell the customer how each dish is made.
  • It is important for servers to know which dishes contain the Big Eight allergens. If you are not sure, ask your manager
  • Tell the customer if any “secret” ingredients contain allergens. Food should always be honestly presented
  • Suggest menu items that do not have the food allergen.
  • Identify the allergen special order. Clearly indicate the order for the guest with a food allergy. Kitchen staff need this information.
  • Hand deliver the allergen special order to the guest. Do this separately from other food to prevent cross-contact.


  • Check recipes and ingredient labels. Make sure the allergen is not present.
  • Wash, rinse, and sanitize cookware, utensils, and equipment before prepping the food. This includes food-prep surfaces.
  • Make sure the allergen does not touch anything for these customers, including all utensils, equipment, and gloves.
  • Wash your hands and change gloves before prepping their food.
  • Use equipment assigned for prepping the allergen special order.
  • Use separate fryers and cooking oils when frying food for customers with food allergies.


  • Some operations use a separate set of utensils for allergen special orders.
  • Some operations use color coding to keep track of which utensils may have come into contact with which allergen.
  • San Jamar offers an Allergen Saf-T-Zone™ System in purple to alert staff to follow special food prep procedures

Other Common Foods That May Cause Allergic Reactions

While more rare, other foods such as corn, meats, gelatin, seeds (sesame, sunflower, poppy), spices, fruits, and vegetables can cause severe reactions. Latex allergy is also important to be aware of if latex gloves are used in food preparation.

Finally, it is important to take any allergy seriously even if it is not one of the common allergens listed here. Any food has the potential to cause anaphylaxis and all reported allergies need to be handled with the same level of caution.

Does your staff need more training on food allergens? Learn more about the ServSafe classes we offer in Alexandria, Virginia.

Sign up for ServSafe course at Alto-Hartley

Learn more in the ServSafe Guide to Preventing Cross-Contamination when you click the image below: