This content was created by Airbnb and is consistent with Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) technical standards for food safety.
Hosting experiences involving food requires that you take precautions to keep your guests safe. It’s important to take food allergies very seriously as people with food allergies can have serious, or even life-threatening reactions after exposure to certain foods—even in very small doses.
Definition of a food allergy
A food allergy occurs when a person’s immune system reacts to a food protein that is typically harmless for other people. When this food protein is eaten, the immune system releases large amounts of chemicals, triggering symptoms that can affect a person’s breathing, heart, skin, and gut. Some food allergies can be severe, causing potentially life-threatening allergic reactions known as anaphylaxis. There is no cure for a food allergy—therefore, avoiding the food is essential to prevent reactions.
Common food allergies
Ninety percent of food reactions are caused by nine allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, cow’s milk products (dairy), sesame, shellfish, fish, soy, and wheat. However, any food has the potential to cause an allergic reaction.
- Peanut allergy: Avoid peanuts and foods that contain peanuts.
- Tree nut allergy: Avoid almonds, cashews, walnuts, pine nuts, lichee nuts, and other tree nuts.
- Shellfish allergy: Avoid marine animals in the shellfish category (crustaceans and mollusks such as shrimp, crab, lobster, squid, oysters, scallops, and others).
- Fish allergy: Avoid fish or their derivatives like fish sauce, fish oil, gelatin, and roe (note that fish can also be found in some Worcestershire sauces, barbecue sauces, and other products).
- Dairy allergy: Avoid milk, and all products made from milk or containing milk and its derivatives.
- Egg allergy: Avoid egg, their derivatives and food products containing eggs as an ingredient.
- Wheat allergy: Avoid wheat and all products containing wheat as an ingredient.
- Soy allergy: Avoid soybeans and all foods containing by-products of soybeans.
The difference between a food intolerance and food allergy
A food intolerance does not involve the immune system like a food allergy does. Food intolerance is the inability to digest a food, which can cause discomfort and distress. While not life-threatening, it should still be taken seriously as symptoms vary from one person to another and can cause the need for medical care. A common example is lactose intolerance, which results from the absence of an enzyme (lactase) that is essential for the digestion of milk and dairy products.
Food allergy triggers
Many food allergies are triggered by the consumption of the food protein, however some allergies are triggered even by the touch or smell of it. Even the smallest exposure could lead to a severe reaction, so as a host, it’s essential that you take extra care and understand the specific needs of any guests with allergies.
One way to avoid triggering a food allergy is to prevent cross-contamination. Cross-contamination occurs when proteins from foods containing an allergen are transferred to foods that don’t contain that allergen.
Cross-contamination mainly occurs in 3 ways:
- Food-to-food: When an allergen-containing food touches or drips on the other foods
- Food-to-hand: When food is handled by the cook or the person serving the dish
- Food-to-equipment: When utensils are shared between allergen-free and allergen-containing foods
Managing food allergies for guests
Communication, planning ahead, as well as how you prep, cook, and perform cleanup are all important elements of keeping guests with food allergies safe. Below are some tips for managing each step.
Before the experience
- Make sure to keep the dietary restriction details of your experience up-to-date. You can add or edit your dietary restrictions by editing the food items in the “what I’ll provide" section of your experience listing.
- It’s a good idea to ask guests if they have food allergies, and communicate allergy-related information to everyone who will be involved in preparing, cooking, or serving the food in your experience.
- For guests who have indicated that they have allergies, ask questions to be sure you understand the allergy—not all allergies are the same or require the same level of handling. And keep a detailed record of all the related information.
- If you’re not sure about your ability to accommodate a food allergy or dietary restriction, be sure to communicate this clearly to guests. Allow guests to make their own decision about whether they can still participate in the experience.
Also, when guests arrive for an experience that includes food, it’s always good practice to ask again if anyone has any food allergies or dietary restrictions so guests can make their own decision.
- Check and double-check that you’re aware of every ingredient used in every component of your food experience, and make the ingredient list available to guests. Pay special attention to any easy-to-miss ingredients in recipes that could be problematic—ex: some sauces contain gluten, there’s often butter in buffalo wings, and the anchovies in Caesar salads and Worcestershire sauce make them off-limits for someone with fish allergies.
- Adapt meals to be suitable for all guests as much as possible. If this isn’t possible, think of potential alternatives, such preparing allergen-free meals first with clean utensils.
- Create a separate workspace in your kitchen to prepare allergen-free meals. Use separate equipment when possible.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with warm soapy water and dry thoroughly before preparing food. (Hand sanitizers will not remove allergens.)
- Keep the preparation area, dining area, utensils, and towels clean by using warm, soapy water.
- All food equipment that is used in the handling and processing of foods that will be eaten by people with allergies must be properly cleaned and sanitized before use.
- Use paper towels instead of cloths to wipe up spills and crumbs that contain the food allergen.
- Do not reuse cooking oil or water.
- Do not use the same utensils to prepare food for people with allergies as you use for people without allergies.
- Place utensils, plates, and cutting boards directly into the sink or the dishwasher immediately after use.
When serving food
- If you have a guest with a food allergy, ask all guests to wash their hands with soap and water upon arrival.
- All the equipment used in the handling and serving of foods that will be eaten by people will allergies must be properly cleaned and sanitized before use.
- Serve allergen-free meals first to avoid confusion, and on differently shaped or colored plates so they can be easily identified by guests and other people involved.
- Remind guests not to share food and drinks.
- Use warm soapy water to clean anything used during prep, cooking, or serving, or eating, including:
- Countertops and any other food preparation surface
- Prep and cooking equipment such as bowls, pots, pans, and utensils
- Serving trays and any dishes and utensils used for eating
- Dish cloths and tea towels
- If you use a barbecue, be sure to fully clean the grill and consider using foil or a clean grill pan to prepare food for your guests so you can easily dispose of it afterwards
In case of emergency
If a guest with a food allergy becomes ill, they may be in a state of anaphylaxis, which is a serious, life-threatening allergic reaction. In an emergency situation, contact local police or emergency services immediately. Make sure you have the contact numbers easy to find. Learn more about what to do in case of an emergency.
If you are unsure about food elements within your experience, check with your local department of health or speak to a lawyer to discuss your experience and its compliance with local laws.