How to Accommodate Guests With Food Allergies

Consider these tips before developing the menu for meetings or events.

By Mitra Sorrells June 17, 2014, 7:45 AM EDT

A frittata is a gluten-free, wheat-free, paleo-diet alternative to a quiche for a breakfast meal.

Photo: Tracy Stuckrath

Planners need to educate themselves and ask the right questions regarding menus at their events to address the needs of attendees’ with food allergies and dietary restrictions. That was the message from Tracy Stuckrath, founder of Thrive Meetings and Events in Atlanta, who presented at A.I.B.T.M., the Americas Incentive, Business Travel & Meetings Exhibition, June 10 at the Orange County Convention Center.

According to the Convention Industry Council, more than $54 billion is spent every year on food and beverage at corporate meetings and events. In the United States, more than 15 million people have food allergies and 27 million follow a vegetarian diet; globally, about one-third of the population follows a religious-based diet, according to Stuckrath. So planners should respect and learn how to accommodate those needs.

“We are welcoming people into our events, which to me is like our home,“ she says. “We value the events we plan. So how can you make them feel more comfortable at your table? If you don’t learn how to serve them correctly, they will skip out on your meeting to go off site to eat and maybe not come back.”

Stuckrath suggests planners ask about food allergies, diets, and religious preferences in the registration process. By asking specific questions, planners can save money and limit the amount of food that is wasted. Stuckrath shared an example of a planner who ordered Kosher meals for some of her attendees, only to find out later that they were not picked up because those people found items on the regular menu that met their needs. Some religious diets also vary based on the calendar and the time of day. “Ask, ‘Do you need the certified Hallal or Kosher meal or would you be okay with a vegan or vegetarian meal?’ That’s a legitimate question. And if they are able to eat that way you will save yourself a heck of a lot of money,” she said.

Food allergies can create a serious health risk, so planners need to understand what is in the foods they are serving and where allergy-causing foods may be hidden. For example, tree nuts are a common allergen and are used in pesto. Ninety percent of all allergic reactions are caused by eight foods: peanuts, eggs, shellfish, soy, fish, milk, wheat, and tree nuts. Stuckrath suggests planners list those items in registration materials and then leave space for an attendee to add any other foods they need to avoid. For people who are particularly sensitive, an allergic reaction can occur even if they don’t eat the food. “Food allergic reaction can happen from touching, ingesting, and smelling. So that action station where someone is sautéing shrimp with garlic can cause a reaction, because the protein from the shrimp and garlic will get into the air and inhaling it can cause an allergic reaction,” she says. Planners should also be aware of the risk of cross-contact, such as a display where wheat-based flour tortillas are near corn tortillas.

Accommodating attendees’ dietary needs is no longer just a matter of good guest relations. The Americans With Disabilities Act now covers people with food allergies, celiac disease, and other conditions that affect their ability to eat. “That means if you have an event that is a requirement or benefit of employment, you cannot discriminate against an employee for their disability,” Stuckrath says. That protection also extends to any events held in places of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, and convention centers.

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