Over the last few years, the dining landscape for restaurateurs, foodservice operators and even grocers has substantially changed. Gluten-free eating is at record levels, due to both trend and necessity. According to a 2012 Mayo Clinic Study, celiac disease is more common than previously thought, and many away-from-home diners are choosing to eat gluten free, illustrated by the portion of households reporting purchases of gluten-free food products, which hit 11 percent last year, rising from 5 percent in 2010. Other allergens are being avoided at record rates too, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of U.S. children who have food allergies rose by 50 percent from 1997 to 2011.

As a result, every restaurant operator and foodservice professional is on notice. Not only are tastes changing due to dietary restrictions, menu design now has life or death consequences—and operators are looking for solutions.

One solution to flip the fear on serving special-needs diners is through training. For example, there is an onsite 2-day accredited training course for food safety experts, chefs and trainers that teaches basics about food allergens, intolerances and celiac disease, policies, laws and regulations, prevention of cross contamination and safe food handling and storage practices. The goal is to teach food safety literally from the loading dock to the table top.

After the course, attendees are able to go back to their own organization with the ability to customize the allergy training to fit their operational environment, and are able train down the line—managers, chefs, line cooks and servers—on topics such as cross contamination, food preparation and the policies needed to protect both diners and foodservice operators.

The training doesn’t just apply to restaurant operators and employees, it extends to colleges and universities, amusement parks, movie theaters and any other type of foodservice establishment.

For example, Bill Moore is the director of safety and security and Eat n’Park Hospitality Group, which covers restaurants, colleges and universities, hospitals and senior care centers, corporate headquarters and a professional sports arena. He has worked for the company for 34 years and attended such a course in January with two colleagues.

Bill started to research and work on a company-wide food allergy program for Eat n’Park Hospitality Group in 2005 after he saw an increase in diners with special dietary needs. Additionally, as Bill’s wife is allergic to certain foods, finding restaurants and foodservice establishments that are safe to dine has been part of his family’s routine. It was while on a family trip to Disney that sparked his company’s food safety program. 

Moore was so impressed with Disney’s own program that he modeled Eat n’Park’s after it, and through a partnership with San Jamar, established the use of color-coded cutting boards, tongs and spatulas to ensure food safety. Bill says their allergy program is the number one compliment he receives on the company’s customer service line. He now plans to conduct training classes for Eat n’Park employees—including managers, cooks and servers.

Anne Thompson, the co-founder of Mothers of Children Having Allergies, is yet another example of foodservice members committed to industry best practices, although her story is very different. Her youngest son has severe allergies so she enrolled in a training course because of the gaps she saw within the college and university system. Thompson will take her training credentials on the road in an effort to teach foodservice providers at schools how to properly prepare and serve children with special dietary needs.

“All of the kids now going to college are the tip of the iceberg of children coming up through the school system,” Thompson said. “I don’t want a kid to die before we recognize the need for greater policies at schools.”

Betsy Craig is the chief executive officer and founder of Kitchens with Confidence LLC and brings more than 25 years of foodservice industry experience to her company MenuTrinfo LLC. Her goal is to ensure her clients meet or exceed new labeling regulations. The next Master Trainer course is being offered April 8 and 9, 2014 in Fort Collins, CO.