If you are like most foodservice operators, you have a customer, family member, friend or employee who is sensitive to gluten or allergic to milk, peanuts, shellfish or other common foods. Or perhaps you are one of the more than 12 million Americans who have food allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With the incidence of food allergies increasing—up 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the International Food Information Council—and the consequences for allergic people of exposure to allergens ranging from mild discomfort to severe illness and even death, it is imperative to serve safe food to this at-risk population.

As restaurant and noncommercial operators and food manufacturers grapple with this issue, they increasingly turn for advice to a company known for leadership in packaging and food safety.

“We have been having a lot more dialogues about food allergens with our customers lately,” says Lucian Gray, director, North America Foodservice Business Development for Sealed Air Corp.’s Food Care Division, of which Cryovac® brand food packaging is a part. “In fact, we’ve had more discussions in 2013 alone than we’ve had in the previous five years.”

What makes managing food-allergen risk more challenging is the fact that the eight foods that account for 90 percent of food allergic reactions—peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish—are widely used in foodservice kitchens. Keeping those allergens away from the menu items that you serve to customers with food allergies requires a comprehensive management program.

The ideal solution is to have a dedicated storage, preparation and ware-washing area for allergen-free menu items, such as that of an airline flight kitchen or large institutional kitchen. However, that typically is impractical for restaurants. Most operators are reducing the footprint of the back-of-the-house and maximizing revenue-producing seats in the front, so there is simply no room to spare.

Fewer Touches Means Lower Risks

Fortunately, a proven way to reduce allergen contamination risks is to choose food products in packages designed to reduce handling in the kitchen. The principle is straightforward: the fewer the touches by kitchen staff, the fewer the opportunities for contamination.

For example, take the Cryovac® Simple Steps® plate. This is a chef-inspired, high-quality meal packaged on a vacuum-skinned plate, attractively presented and ready to heat. The vacuum skin covering provides steam-assisted cooking and ventilation in the package. There is no need to open the package beforehand, eliminating cross-contamination risks from handling and utensil use.

“You peel back the skin and now you have a hot, appealing plate ready to eat, whether you are at a restaurant table or at home watching the World Series,” says Gray.

The Cryovac® Simple Steps® plate lets college and university, healthcare and restaurant operators offer ready-to-heat meals with an upscale, chef-driven look and the confidence that they are free from inadvertent cross-contamination. It is perfect for limited-time offerings because it allows greater control over inventory and labor. It also assures consistency and accurate portioning in multiple locations and save the labor that would be needed for plating after heating.

Another solution is Cryovac® Oven Ease® packaging, which enables pre-marinated roasts, ribs, seafood, poultry and the like to be packaged in a vacuum-packed film bag that can go straight from refrigeration to the oven for cooking or rethermalization.

“This is another instance in which contamination can be eliminated by reducing touches,” says Gray. “The roast is never exposed to air or hands, just packaged, shipped and cooked in the same package.”

Packaging also comes into play with deli meats sliced and packaged in Cryovac® barrier film packages, the choice of many sandwich operators. This reduces the risk of allergen and pathogen contamination on the meat slicer, not to mention employee injury.

Sealed Air is a Resource for Operators

Sealed Air is ready to share its expertise with operators to help them navigate the complex and challenging issues of allergen-risk reduction, offering everything from advice on packaging solutions and operational procedures to full audits of facilities.

“What makes us different is that we offer a holistic solution,” says Gray. “We serve the whole food chain from the ground the product came from to the end user and everything in between.”

For more information, visit cryovac.com or call 800-391-5645.