Taking dietary restrictions seriously can save money and heartache

For decades, industry surveys have shown that the quality of food and beverage at events is one of the top elements that drive attendee satisfaction. Most planners glean this simply from the reactions they observe and the comments they hear from attendees during each event’s meals and refreshment breaks.

However, planners now know they must also pay considerable attention not only to the appetizing nature of what they serve at meetings, but also the potential health consequences for attendees with food allergies and other dietary restrictions. Tracy Stuckrath, president of Denver-based Thrive Meetings and Events, regularly consults with host groups and venues on menu planning, food preparation and serving practices for maximum safety, as well as attendee satisfaction. She says not taking this issue seriously could expose attendees to risks and result in wasted food and budget.

All meetings and events must adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires “reasonable accommodation” for people who have a physical limitation that prevents them from enjoying a service all other participants will receive. Additionally, the “duty of care” obligation that falls upon event hosts—and which can be cited in a civil suit—makes it imperative that planners approach meal and refreshment-break services in a way that minimizes the possibility of an allergic incident among attendees.

Communicate Early and Often

Proactive communication with attendees can go a long way. When attendees register for an event, ask about any food allergies or other dietary restrictions they have. With this information, planners can instruct the venue to create alternative plated meals for specific attendees or set up separate buffet stations to prevent cross-contact of certain items.

Planners also can place customized meal cards inside the badge-holders of attendees who listed a restriction, so that they can hand the cards to a server during a sit-down meal and receive the correct alternative meal.

Not only is it important to ask for dietary restrictions in advance for safety and liability reasons, but it also enhances the quality of the dining experience for these attendees and reduces food waste.

“If you simply wait for attendees to tell you on the day of a meal event that they have an allergy, the alternative meal they receive likely won’t be as good as one that was preplanned,” Stuckrath says. “And if attendees aren’t asked, and don’t say anything on site, they will just avoid a lot of the food offerings to play it safe—and then you’ve paid for food that won’t be consumed.”

Work with the Executive Chef

Next, communicate with the executive chef at the venue so that the culinary staff can prepare food and arrange the buffet to make certain that problematic ingredients are kept out of particular dishes.

“Food-allergy training often is not done for the entire service staff, so planners need to get the head chef involved,” Stuckrath says. “Some areas of the kitchen might need to be segmented for the making of gluten-free, nut-free or vegan meals, and the head chef should monitor that.”

One of Stuckrath’s clients adds a clause in her event contracts stating that there must be barriers of some type, even between the vegan and vegetarian sections of the group’s buffet stations, to avoid cross-contact. “A stray piece of egg or a drop of cream sauce will ruin a whole tray in a vegan section,” she says. “Some people eat that way for personal reasons, but that separation is even more critical for people with allergies.”

Label All Ingredients

Food labeling is another critical element. The European Union specifies 14 allergens that must be listed for consumers of not only packaged foods, but also prepared meals. The United States has eight such allergens that must be disclosed to consumers. To make food labeling at her events as complete as possible, Stuckrath lists all ingredients for dishes at buffet stations.

“[This is] so that even if a dish is listed as gluten-free and nut-free, people also know that there is egg or fish, or some other possible allergen in there,” she says. This detailed labeling can be particularly useful in cases in which ingredients are not obvious. For example, many steak sauces contain anchovy paste—dangerous to attendees with a fish allergy but not widely known.

Especially for plated meals that are central to a gala dinner or other special event, planners should be careful about allergens that might come from more obscure ingredients. To defend against this, planners can purchase Nima, a portable food-allergen tester ($229). There are separate testers for gluten and for nuts, and users must also purchase a 10-pack of single-use testing cartridges ($59). But to ensure that a meal does not have an ingredient containing allergens, planners could carry these palm-sized testers right into the kitchen and take samples.

Rob Carey is a business journalist and principal of Meetings & Hospitality Insight, a content marketing firm for the group-business market.