23rd December, 2014

Is your cafe responsible for a guest’s food allergy?

Food allergies are difficult to live with, as some particular reactions can be life-threatening. Individuals with such an allergy are often required to avoid a long list of foods and ingredients.

As a cafe owner, it is your responsibility to take any reasonable precautions if a guest informs you of an allergy. This includes actioning safe food practices, having alternative choices available, and being open and honest about your preparation.

If a customer were to have a sudden and severe allergic reaction to your food, you may find your business is liable for any medical costs and penalties that could arise. Breaching your duty of care as a food and beverage provider is a serious offence, and one that will be appropriately penalised by Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the local WorkSafe authority.

When a situation such as this occurs, it pays to be protected by public liability insurance. This policy, added to your cafe insurance package, will ensure resulting legal costs are not taken from your own pocket.

However, an even more important consideration is the prevention measures you put in place to avoid allergic reactions in your establishment. Here are a few key facts about allergens and what you can do to prevent medical emergencies at your cafe.

What is an allergy?

Around one in 20 children and two in 100 adults suffer from a food-related allergy in Australia, according to figures from the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy.

When you also consider the people who suffer digestive problems due to food intolerances, the number increases significantly. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates 3.7 million individuals over the age of 2 must avoid certain foods due to an allergy of intolerance.

Essentially, these individuals are those who suffer digestive discomfort or an immune response when they consume certain foods. In a serious case, anaphylaxis can occur, which affects breathing, circulation and can result in death.

While small amounts of certain allergens can be tolerated, severe allergies can cause reactions even when only the minutest ingredient is present – which means that accidental cross-contact is as serious as purposeful inclusion.

What is your responsibility?

According to Anaphylaxis Australia, business owners have two vital obligations regarding allergies among their guests. These are:

  • Providing accurate information on food ingredients if and when a customer asks for it
  • Removing all allergens in food if specifically requested by a customer and this is a reasonable undertaking

Negligence and failure to meet your obligations under these regulations may result in you being liable for penalties and legal costs. Fortunately, you can easily protect your business by enacting a few simple rules:

  1. Have ingredients listed where customers can review them or make sure everyone on your staff knows the common allergens and can give accurate advice about what to eat.
  2. If you or your staff don't know something regarding a particular allergen, it pays to be honest. If you give guidance that is wrong, this is a good way to end up liable for medical expenses or even more serious damages.
  3. Ensure that all foods being prepared for an allergic guest are prepared separately to other foods and check your products for cross-contamination regularly.
  4. Provide alternatives to guests. Simply offering soy milk to those who can't have dairy, or a gluten-free meal to those with a gluten or wheat intolerance, can be enough to promote your business as inclusive and supportive of allergy sufferers.

Author: Murray Bruce