Australia has among the highest rates of food allergies and intolerances in the world, and life-threatening food allergies have doubled in the last 10 years. According to the National Allergy Strategy, food allergies and intolerances affect one in five Australians, and are the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia.
Food allergies in Aged Care
The rate of food allergies is on the rise, affecting every age group in the community. While many chefs and food handlers are hyper-aware about allergies in children and young people, there is a growing incidence of allergies affecting older people, including elderly Aged Care residents.
The growing prevalence of allergies among Aged Care residents means there is a greater need for awareness and education among Aged Care staff, to both improve allergy management strategies and reduce the stigma attached.
Food allergies can range in severity from mild intolerance to very severe, life-threatening anaphylaxis. In some severe cases, the allergy can be triggered by the smell of a food, or kissing someone with a trace of the food on their lips. The impact on a person’s quality of life is often greater than other chronic illnesses, as they become fearful of eating or social contact.
Around 170 foods are known to cause allergies. The most commonly identified food allergens in Aged Care are gluten, crustaceans, egg, fish, milk, peanuts and soybeans.
Most severe food allergic reactions happen to a person when they eat food prepared by someone else, so allergy awareness is particularly pertinent for Aged Care chefs who prepare every meal for a resident.
All kitchen staff need to be aware of the difference between a severe allergy, often referred to as an anaphylactic allergy where the resident requires an epi-pen, to an allergic reaction such as a skin rash or swelling, to food intolerances where people feel unwell when they eat certain foods but they are not life-threatening.
Create allergy friendly processes in your kitchen
Make sure they know which residents are at risk and give clear steps for food preparation. For example, a second toaster is required for preparing gluten free toast for residents with celiac disease and all gluten free food is to be prepared where it cannot be contaminated with foods containing gluten.
Creating a colour-coded system also makes handling allergy meals easier. BlueCross Aged Care use the colour purple to identify the kitchen tools which are to be used to prepare gluten free food. They have sealable tubs for items such as toasters so there is no risk of contamination.
Ensure all food service staff are aware of who is at risk of an allergic reaction, residents with cognitive decline are especially vulnerable if they experience allergy symptoms and cannot communicate their needs.
Key steps to avoid allergic reactions in your facility
Food allergies cannot be cured, but they can be avoided.
Ensure mandatory training is completed by all staff members at your facility
All food handlers and Aged Care chefs should have mandatory food allergy training in a site-specific format. Training will give chefs the knowledge, skills and confidence to better understand how to cater to food allergies in a fast-paced environment of an Aged Care kitchen.
Identify residents with allergies and eliminate respective food triggers from the menu
Identifying residents with allergies or suspected intolerances is crucial, as serving the wrong meal containing a known allergen to the wrong resident may have serious consequences. Prevention measures also include eliminating certain food triggers from the menu (such as nuts) or ensuring allergens are carefully handled.
Check all ingredient labels and follow processes to prevent cross-contamination
Regularly follow up on staff allergy management practices and their adherence to the processes
Allergies must be taken seriously. All food labels should be read carefully and allergens must be kept covered and separated. If an allergen is spilled in the kitchen, all uncovered food in the immediate area must be discarded. Cross-contamination can occur during storage and preparation of any dry, refrigerated or frozen products and if it does these ingredients must not be used to prepare allergy-free dishes. Food handlers must know how to prevent cross-contamination and carefully clean all surfaces, utensils and equipment before preparing a meal for someone with a severe allergy.
Basic food handling training is not enough when it comes to managing and avoiding allergies. Regularly review the competence and capabilities of staff by establishing a competency register that includes identifying symptoms, implementation of management plans and emergency procedures. It’s not simply a case of good industry practice – it could save someone’s life.