No, you're not imagining it. Allergies are on the increase in North America. An allergic reaction occurs when the body reacts to a substance as it if were harmful. When event planners and caterers plan menus for corporate and special events, it is important to be more vigilant than ever and takes steps to accommodate the needs of allergy suffers.
The first line of defense is prevention. The most common allergens are peanuts, eggs, tree nuts and shellfish. Other common allergies are soy, wheat and sulfites. A short survey of attendees or a few questions on an application form can quickly uncover food allergies and sensitivities.
Factor this information into your planning and provide alternatives if there are items that you can't remove from the main menu. Food allergies are not the only area of concern. If all or part of the activities will be taking place outdoors, information should also be collected about plant, pollen and insect bite allergies.
If the activities are going to be rigorous, information should also be gathered about allergic reactions to medicine. For activities that involve exertion, treks in remote areas or overnight camping, it is important to have a "first aider" and nurse as part of the event staff.
Be sure to check with your venue and caterer about the steps they take to deal with allergies and handle food safety. For example, The Toronto Congress Centre is the first North American conference center with Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point accreditation (HACCP). Some hotels do have medical practitioners on staff. Be sure that you are briefed about who they are and how to contact them in an emergency.
Some clients won't see the need to collect this information or they may feel it is an invasion of privacy to pass medical information on to event planners. In these instances, patience and strong influence skills are needed to persuade clients that being informed is the best strategy for protecting them. A client has never refused to collect information about allergies once the reason has been made clear. What if you encounter a client who simply refuses to disclose medical information such as other allergic reactions? We have only had this happen with 3-4 clients. Event planners do need have to be prepared with a back up strategy. One approach that my company has used in these instances is to:
- issue the medical questionnaire in a separate, short document
- ask participants to return the document in a sealed envelope with their name clearly printed on the outside
- ask the client to arrange the documents in alphabetical order
At this point we have found that clients who are resistant will agree to one of three approaches:
- pass the sealed envelope to the event planner
- appoint one person from the client organization who will not be participating in the event to retain the information and provide it in an emergency
- arrange for someone from the client organization to pass the envelopes to the medical practitioner on the day of the event
Be sure to brief your client about emergency procedures and to provide safety briefings for participants before participating in activities. Ask any participants who have not completed a questionnaire to communicate allergies and food sensitivities to approach a designated member of your team immediately so that you can advise the caterers.
Be on the Alert
Event staff should be briefed about the signs that indicate that a participant may be in difficulty. Some of the common allergic reactions include:
- watery eyes
More severe reactions can include swelling or redness in the face. This experience heightened my awareness about allergies.
Years ago, when I was still in banking, a co-worker bit into a sandwich at lunchtime, her face turned red like a tomato and started to swell up like a balloon. Emergency personnel were contacted and she was rushed to the hospital. This type of reaction can be fatal if the tongue becomes excessively swollen and the individual is unable to breathe.
Get Immediate Help
If there is an allergic reaction, ensure that you arrange immediate help from the medical practitioner on your team or at the resort or call local emergency services personnel.
Here are a number of resources from which planners can obtain more information about allergies, their causes and prevention. You can even subscribe to receive alerts when there are food recalls or new developments re: allergies:
- U.S.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Allergens
- Canada: Food Recalls & Allergy Alerts
- Canada: Health Canada - It's Your Health - Food Allergies
- European Union: European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
- Global: World Health Organization (WHO) - Food Safety
Photo Credit: malamantra