alt=a woman looking nervously at catering staff carrying covered platters

Food Allergies: Can You Trust the Catering Staff?

Last updated: December 2022

I was at another work conference this week, and as usual, I had to worry about what I could eat with my food allergies. My colleague had carefully planned every detail with the hotel and checked back with the hotel staff to make sure they had everything correct. She told them that an attendee had a seafood allergy (that attendee was me).

Seafood on the buffet line

Halfway through the first day of the conference, lunch arrived. And I was famished! I went out into the hall to see what was on the lunch buffet. It was a long table, so I made a delicious salad, added some veggies, and then came to the protein choices. They were chicken, beef, or fish. Yes, FISH.

I was shocked. What part of "an attendee has a seafood allergy" did the catering staff not understand? We saw the food order with large, bold letters reading "seafood allergy." So why did they serve a pan of salmon?! I put my plate on the table and slowly backed away.

Consulting the catering staff about my allergy

The catering staff asked if there was a problem. I told them I was allergic to seafood, and part of our lunch order had included a warning of the seafood allergy. They said they would talk to the cook, who would prepare a special plate for me.

The presentations were still going on, so I didn't have time to stand around out in the hall and wait. I went back inside, and the catering staff brought a plate covered with a metal lid. When they removed the lid, I saw a salad topped with steak strips.

Not trusting the kitchen to be allergen free

However, at this point, I didn't trust them. The long buffet table had 3 large metal containers with propane heaters underneath. 1 had chicken, 1 had steak, and 1 had salmon. If all 3 protein options were side by side on our buffet, then how were they stored in the kitchen?

Cross-contamination concerns

I wondered, "Were the proteins stored side by side in the kitchen? Did they use separate tongs for each kind? Did they prepare the food on the same grill?"

I didn't trust them and didn't have time to ask the chef questions. We were in the middle of conducting a global food allergy conference (ironic, right?).

A presenting doctor said, "Don't touch that. We don't need a live demonstration of what happens when someone has cross-contamination with their food allergen!" Why couldn't the hotel follow the basic "seafood allergy" warning and NOT serve seafood?

Always packing my own snacks

I trudged to my hotel room and grabbed some cheese cracker sandwiches I always pack with me. And that was my lunch. My colleague urged me to go to the snack bar on another floor. She thought they might have a separate kitchen and chef. I doubted that they had 2 kitchens, but I still didn't trust them.

Finding an allergy-friendly lunch option

So, I found a microwave canister of beef stew in the hotel store. They also had a microwave there, so I carefully checked the rest of the meals in the area to ensure none had seafood. What if someone had used that microwaved to warm up seafood? I didn't see any other prepacked food with seafood, so I warmed up my beef stew and carefully carried that back to my conference.

Feeling a mix of emotions

At this point, I was a mix of emotions – fear, disappointment, and anger. How could this have happened? Again?! Unfortunately, situations like these are not unusual. This was the third time I have responded to a conference and informed them that I was allergic to all seafood, yet the catering staff served seafood every time.

Has anyone else alerted the catering staff to a food allergy only to be served that food?

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