Food allergies have become a major public health and safety concern as the numbers of those affected by them continues to grow at an alarming rate. According to a new analysis of private insurance claims by FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit that collects and analyzes claims data, life-threatening allergic reactions to foods have increased by five times over the last decade alone.
For grocers, this worrying trend presents serious risks for in-store customer safety––particularly in areas like the deli, bakery, and/or in-store restaurant. Fortunately, while this problem is growing, food allergies themselves are nothing new. Supermarkets have developed many ways to deal with these issues throughout their stores and by following these established best practices, grocers can stem the tide of this mounting problem.
We’ve compiled four of the tried-and-true food allergy best practices below.
1. Make food allergy awareness a part of your customer service culture
Roughly one in every 25 shoppers walking through your store will either have a food allergy themselves, or will be shopping for someone who does. This relatively large (and growing) group of customers tend to be especially loyal to the stores that cater to their unique needs. To be the destination they’ll return to again and again, company leaders need to take steps to make food allergy awareness a part of the organization’s broader culture of customer service, whether that’s through a special diet program or other initiative that directly impacts the shopping experience.
Some grocers may be ahead of the game in this area while others may need to take some steps to offer a truly memorable experience for these shoppers. Ask yourself a few key questions to better understand where your stores are, and what you need to do to improve:
- Do you have processes in place to handle food allergy requests, particularly in areas like the deli, bakery, or in-store restaurant area?
- Are you sourcing and offering allergy friendly food options?
- Do your menus and signage make it easy for shoppers to see which food items are safe for them?
- Do you actively gather feedback from customers to inform your actions around allergy awareness?
2. Develop simple, clear, consistent guidelines for staff-to-customer interactions
Without a communication strategy behind them, special dietary policies can go unnoticed or ignored by customers searching for them. Both your employees and your shoppers need to be informed. For those without a communication strategy already in place, develop simple messaging guidelines and procedures for employees to follow. For example, create a procedure for staff to follow up with a manager when customers indicate they have a food allergy so the necessary steps can be taken to handle their order safely.
Other common food allergy procedures for grocery stores include instructions for staff to reference food labels and/or manufacturer information if shoppers have questions about ingredients. In addition to training staff, grocers should also communicate directly to shoppers in the areas where food allergy safety might be an issue through signage. These can instruct customers with food allergies to ask for managers or trained specialists to help them find safe products in the food service areas.
Stretch your messaging outsides your stores as well. Take advantage of the digital real estate on your website and integrate your messaging into your social media presence to let followers know where they can find safe products.
3. Practice safe food allergen practices throughout the store
The Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization offers what many regard as the best food allergy safety guidelines through its 4 R’s program (Refer, Review, Remember, and Respond). These practices should be put into use throughout all food service operations every day.
In addition to abiding by food safety standards, stores should strive to be 100 percent transparent with ingredients. While signage plays a large role in this, staff should be trained by food allergen specialists and department managers on how to fully address customer questions regarding food contents and preparation.
It may be an obvious point, but it’s important to note that HACCP should be fully integrated in all food service areas. Many supermarkets strengthen their approach to compliance and safety by designating food allergen safety zones in kitchens and other higher-risk areas. Here, special sets of utensils and cookware are designated and used only for allergen-free preparation and cooking to avoid any chance of cross contamination.
4. Gather customer feedback and shape your food safety program accordingly
Social media, surveys, and focus groups are all powerful tools for gathering feedback from shoppers with food allergies. In addition to everything a grocer can do on its own to reach out for impressions and advice from customers, consider partnering with local support groups. These partnerships provide an opportunity to both learn about community needs as well as positioning your organization as one who is actively invested in the concerns of the community.