P.F. Chang’s Faces Lawsuit Over Gluten-free Menu
Update May 2016: The complainant has dropped her lawsuit over the surcharge issue.
February, 2015: P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is being sued over claims that its gluten-free menu discriminates against those with celiac disease.
Anna Marie Phillips filed suit against the Chinese food chain claiming that an added charge applied to gluten-free menu items violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The restaurant’s designated gluten-free menu includes 19 appetizer, entrée, and dessert options that either contain no gluten as prepared or can be modified to be gluten-free. These items are each $1 more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts.
The lawsuit, which had been filed in a Northern California court, notes that although some adjustments to regular menu items come at no extra charge, all meals on the gluten-free menu are more expensive, even those that naturally contain no gluten. Phillips contends that the extra surcharge reflects unequal treatment of those who are medically required to avoid gluten, such as those with celiac disease.
The Northern California woman filed the class action suit on behalf of anyone with celiac disease or gluten intolerance who ate from P.F. Chang’s gluten-free menu in the past four years – which, according to estimates, could include 3,000 people.
Phillips is seeking to remove the added menu costs, and receive restitution for surcharges that have already been paid as well as other compensation and penalties.
However, major celiac organizations Beyond Celiac and the Celiac Disease Foundation have both voiced their concern over the implications of the lawsuit.
“While it can be frustrating to pay more for food that we need in order to be healthy, we can’t overlook the fact that making safe gluten-free food comes with a cost,” Alice Bast, Beyond Celiac’s president and CEO, told Allergic Living. “We would not want to deter other restaurants from purchasing gluten-free ingredients or pursuing training programs, [like those offered by her organization], that can make them better equipped to serve gluten-free food to those with a medical need.”
A 2008 study comparing gluten-free items with comparable counterparts found that cutting out gluten can be costly. The Dalhousie Medical School researchers found that on average, gluten-free products were 242 percent more expensive. British researchers who did a similar study in 2011 found that gluten-free groceries range between 76 and 518 percent more expensive – a mark-up that some, like Phillips, argue is unfair.
“Having a dietary issue is a disability,” attorney Mark Heller told Yahoo Health. “To have to pay a premium price is discriminatory, and there is legal basis for a case. It would be like installing a handicapped ramp and then charging people a dollar to use it.”
When the Beyond Celiac posted news of Phillips’ lawsuit against P.F. Chang’s on Facebook, the article received more than 600 likes, however, majority of those who commented were concerned.
“My wife and son are gluten free because of celiac and we have no issues paying $1 or $2 more for gluten-free food from a trusted source,” wrote Matt Robbie. “P.F. Chang’s is our family’s favorite restaurant because of the precautions they take and the attention they give to making sure my wife and son are taken care of. I will pay extra for that every day.”
Other commenters noted that other allergy-aware restaurants, Red Robin for instance, also charge extra for items such as gluten-free buns. P.F. Chang’s, which was named as one of AllergyEats most allergy-friendly restaurants last year, says it does not comment on pending litigation.
As someone with celiac disease, Bast knows that eating gluten-free has increased her food expenses. However, she says, “Personally, I am happy to pay a few extra dollars if that means knowing I am safe from gluten exposure.”