By far the biggest fear for someone with gluten intolerance or a food allergy when dining out is the risk that the served food may have been contaminated. It only takes a crumb to cause a problem. Imagine taking a slice of regular white sandwich bread and cutting it into 2,040 equal parts—just one of those parts could contaminate an otherwise gluten-free meal. That tiny piece can set off a person with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, making them sick.
Approximately 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, and up to 6 percent may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Moreover, the appeal of gluten-free products is growing rapidly, in part due to the overall growing interest in ingredient disclosure and “free-from” labeling, as well as general interest in eating foods that consumers perceive to be more healthy.
According to the FDA, “gluten-free” is defined as a food containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten. The FDA treats items labeled “gluten friendly” or “gluten removed” under the same standard, so labels of these kinds do not relax the requirements for a food service.
When customers order food items marked as gluten-free on menus, they are putting a lot of trust in the food service operators. In the case of gluten, cross-contamination occurs when a food item comes into contact with another food item containing gluten or a surface or other object on which gluten protein is present. The good news for food service is that there are low- to no-cost solutions that can prevent cross-contamination.
Avoiding Potential for Cross-Contamination
While restaurants and other food service establishments naturally want to respond to the growing gluten-free demands, they need to be extremely careful with food selection, storage, and preparation if they make gluten-free (“GF”) claims. When planning menus, it is imperative to be able to assess the gluten-free status of all ingredients and garnishes used in the dish. Once ingredients are verified as GF, close attention must be paid to the preparation and potential for cross-contamination.
Well-meaning food service establishments may know how to prepare a gluten-free dish but may still run afoul of serving it gluten-free as a result of cross-contamination. Below are some examples.
- Cross-contamination can easily occur if a pizza restaurant uses the same cutter for pizzas with a crust containing gluten and for pizzas with a gluten-free crust, even if the utensil has been washed between uses because if it is a hard to clean utensil, it has parts that are not easy to reach or could store food particles.
- If a salad with croutons is mistakenly served to a customer concerned about gluten, the salad should not just be taken back into the kitchen to have a chef remove the croutons. It’s those very small crumbs that will cause a person to be sick.
- At ice cream shops, servers will often dip a scoop into water before using it to serve a different type of ice cream. This is a problem when offering a GF ice cream. For example, if the scoop is used for a cookies and cream flavor and then dipped into the water, any cookie left on the scoop is now in the water and can cause cross-contamination problems.
- If pasta is cooked in water, that same water can’t then be used to cook GF vegetables or GF pasta.
Similarly, food service staff may be well trained on how to avoid biologic food contaminations, such as bacteria and molds, but not know the best practices for avoiding gluten contamination. Moreover, unlike some biologic contaminations, a gluten contamination will not be eliminated through cooking or sanitation.
Ongoing staff training on how to properly prepare and handle food to prevent cross-contamination as well as how to answer guest questions accurately is of critical importance when offering GF options. Mistakes, even if inadvertent, can have serious consequences, including patron illness, potential legal or regulatory action, and damage to a restaurant’s reputation.
One way for a food service organization to establish successful GF practices and procedures is to work with a third-party gluten-free certification program. A program of this kind works with a food service to set policies and procedures that the food service will implement and follow to assure the safety of food items. It will also include periodic site audits that assure compliance with the policies and procedures. Much like requirements set by a health department, GF certification requirements are designed to provide consistency in GF food safety no matter what type of food service is using the program. Certification is one way to provide the highest assurance to customers of the food services’ ability to meet their needs.
A third-party food service certification program can provide the needed expertise and experience to help a restaurant or other food service environment offer proper training and establish and maintain appropriate standards. Established standards are important over time as new employees come on board.
Best Practices are Simple Steps
It is important to evaluate with a critical eye reasonable steps that can be taken to avoid putting a food service at risk of cross-contamination. A kitchen or service setup often contains unnecessary risks that are simple to eliminate, such as recognizing the need to place pasta at the end of a salad bar to avoid the potential for cross-contaminating other food items, not storing gluten-exposed pans above those used for gluten-free preparations, and not cleaning surfaces with soap and water (which can spread gluten proteins) instead of sanitizers.
Food service operators should not let the concern of cross-contamination stop them from offering GF menu items. Often, the steps to prevent cross-contamination can be taken with minimal cost. An additional shelf may be needed to store things correctly, or more foil may be needed compared to what the food service previously had used. More often than not, new large equipment is not needed.
The following are three guiding principles that every food service should adhere to when providing gluten-free offerings.
Principle 1: Prevention of food safety hazards is favored over reliance on corrective actions after a problem has occurred.
Principle 2: Prevention of food contamination in the production of gluten-free foods must encompass all aspects of procurement, processing, and delivery of gluten-free foods.
Principle 3: Worker hygiene and production and storage area sanitation practices play a critical role in minimizing the potential for contamination of gluten-free foods.
Ensuring best practices is not an insurmountable ordeal—it is comprised of simple steps regarding food placement and kitchen procedures that may not have been considered previously. However, for food service establishments offering GF food items, understanding the risks of cross-contamination and establishing sound, documented procedures for avoiding those risks is essential to the safety of patrons and ultimately, a food service organization’s success.
Kupper is CEO of the Gluten Intolerance Group, which provides food safety certification programs, and is a registered dietitian and expert in celiac disease management. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.