Background: The clinical features of food-allergic reactions in restaurants and other food establishments have not been studied. Of the registrants in the United States Peanut and Tree Nut Allergy Registry (PAR), 13.7% have reported reactions associated with such establishments.
Objective: The purpose of this study was to determine the features of allergic reactions to peanut and tree nut in restaurant foods and foods purchased at other private establishments (eg, ice cream shops and bakeries).
Methods: Telephone interviews were conducted through use of a structured questionnaire. Subjects/parental surrogates were randomly selected from among the 706 PAR registrants who reported a reaction in a restaurant or other food establishment.
Results: Details were obtained for 156 episodes (29 first-time reactions) from 129 subjects/parental surrogates. Most reactions were caused by peanut (67%) or tree nut (24%); for some reactions (9%), the cause was a combination of peanut and another nut or was unknown. Symptoms began at a median of 5 minutes after exposure and were severe in 27% of reactions. Overall, 86% of reactions were treated (antihistamines, 86%; epinephrine, 40%). Establishments commonly cited were Asian food restaurants (19%), ice cream shops (14%), and bakeries/doughnut shops (13%). Among meal courses, desserts were a common cause (43%). Of 106 registrants with previously diagnosed allergy who ordered food specifically for ingestion by the allergic individual, only 45% gave prior notification about the allergy to the establishment. For 83 (78%) of these 106 reactions, someone in the establishment knew that the food contained peanut or tree nut as an ingredient; in 50% of these incidents, the food item was "hidden" (in sauces, dressings, egg rolls, etc), visual identification being prevented. In 23 (22%) of the 106 cases, exposures were reported from contamination caused primarily by shared cooking/serving supplies. In the remaining 21 subjects with previously diagnosed allergy, reactions resulted from ingestion of food not intended for them, ingestion of food selected from buffet/food bars, or skin contact/inhalation (residual food on tables, 2; peanut shells covering floors, 2; being within 2 feet of the cooking of the food, 1).
Conclusions: Restaurants and other food establishments pose a number of dangers for peanut- and tree nut-allergic individuals, particularly with respect to cross-contamination and unexpected ingredients in desserts and Asian food. Failure to establish a clear line of communication between patron and establishment is a frequent cause of errors.