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Be Aware and Prepare

If you or someone you love is among the 15 million Americans who have food allergies, you understand the challenges and fears that accompany dining away from home. About half of fatal food allergic reactions are triggered by foods consumed outside the home kitchen. That includes meals at meetings.

Since she learned she has food allergies, meeting planner Tracy Stuckrath has made it her mission to educate her peers and catering professionals about ways to avoid food-related health problems. Her focus is particularly pertinent considering that food allergies are on the rise throughout the world. Stuckrath believes that meeting planners who understand food allergies are a key to attendees’ well-being. “This is our way to save someone’s life,” she said.

Here are some of her pointers for meeting planners.

Ask the Question

Every registration form should have this mandatory question: “Are you allergic to” followed by a checklist of the most-common allergens: wheat, milk products, eggs, shellfish, fish, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. These eight allergens account for 90 percent of the world’s food allergies. In addition to checkoffs for each of the eight, include a checkoff for “None” and a blank for “Other,” Stuckrath said.

Ask the Next Question

The registration form also should have two questions for those with food allergies. “They are ‘Do you carry epinephrine?’ and ‘Provide us with a food allergy action plan to tell us what we should do for you if something goes wrong,’” said Stuckrath. If the answers provided on the registration form aren’t clear or comprehensive, call for clarification, she said.

Go Straight to the Chef

“I think, in most cases, convention services managers are less attuned [to food allergies] than chefs,” Stuckrath said. She recommends that planners work directly with chefs. Provide them with a list of all your attendees’ food allergies, then try to create a menu that includes none of them. Doing so eliminates the need for special meals. If you can’t eliminate all allergens, shoot for half or three-quarters of the meal to be allergen free. You might need to meet with more than one chef; for example, a caterer who is handling an event away from the hotel or convention center.

Use Your Labels

If you opt for a buffet, list the ingredients in each dish instead of simply using broader labels like “vegetarian” or “dairy free.” “You are much better off letting people know what is in the food,” Stuckrath said.

Educate the Servers

Careful menu planning must be coupled with proper handling and delivery. Make sure that back-of-the-house staff that manage special meals understand issues like cross contamination. Make sure that your system for delivering the meals to attendees is understood by both attendees and the serving staff.

“Where things can go wrong is in the server meeting if they are not informed or educated,” she said. You don’t want an attendee to wait 20 minutes for a special meal; you don’t want a server to be handed a special meal coupon with the question, “What am I supposed to do with this?” The best food service operations “will view special meals as a customer-service opportunity rather than an issue,” said Stuckrath. “They’ll have the attitude, we want this person to have a fabulous meal like everyone else.”

Ask About Emergency Staff

Despite your precautions, someone could still have an allergic reaction. Find out if emergency medical technicians carry epinephrine. A number of states have passed laws that allow public facilities to stock the drug, which is used in cases of severe allergic reaction.

To learn more about Stuckrath and her company, Thrive! Meetings and Events, visit