This column is a companion article to Allergic Living’s Fall 2016 cover story: “How Chefs Are Faring with Allergies & Gluten.”
When you or a family member are living with a food allergy, dining out is always a challenge. In any restaurant you hope that, at a minimum, your server knows what a food allergy is, and understands the difference between a life-threatening food allergy and a food intolerance. Unfortunately, we still have a ways to go in ensuring that awareness level in the restaurant industry is applied consistently across the U.S.
Researchers at Auburn University last year published a survey of restaurant managerial staff and found that more than half of the participants believed a food allergy and a food intolerance were the same thing – a common misconception. Equally concerning, nearly one-quarter of the respondents indicated that food allergy reactions had occurred at their restaurants within a year of the survey. “These findings imply that restaurateurs are evidently underestimating the severity of food allergies,” the authors wrote.
Underestimating, and too often, dismissing and disbelieving.
As much as we continue to move the needle on food allergy awareness, and as much as we appreciate those in the restaurant community who have helped to demonstrate the promise of greater education and training, we’ve all got to step up our efforts.
Earlier this year in Massachusetts, one of just four states with restaurant-related food allergy awareness laws in place, a family sued Panera Bread Co. and the franchise owners of several Panera outlets. They allege staff at a local outlet had put peanut butter into a grilled cheese sandwich – despite the fact that the family’s order alerted staff about a peanut allergy. The 5-year-old child who took a bite of the sandwich experienced an anaphylactic reaction. Fortunately, she recovered.
While this civil case is in dispute, it demonstrates that even in states where there is a heightened level of awareness and education, mistakes that put the food allergy community at risk happen.
In addition to Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island and Virginia have food allergy awareness laws related to restaurants on the books. These laws include provisions such as notices on menus asking patrons to inform the server of any food allergies, training on food allergies for restaurant managers, and procedures to inform customers, upon request, of the presence of major food allergens in menu items. (Incidentally, the laws in Rhode Island and Virginia were passed as a result of the passionate advocacy work of teenagers. The first teen’s success was presented at FARE’s Teen Summit in 2013, inspiring the next success, which was shared at the same event in 2015.)
When we encourage restaurants to become more inviting to the food allergy community, we’re not asking them to gut their business models or their kitchens. When we advocate for restaurant staff to be better trained, we’re not asking for guarantees of safety.
What we want is a deeper understanding and empathy on behalf of owners, chefs and staff. What we need is for restaurants to take advantage of food allergy safety training that is widely available through the National Restaurant Association (the ServSafe Allergens course) and Menu-Trinfo (the AllerTrain program), and other channels. We are encouraged that more than 10,000 restaurant employees have been trained through these efforts, but that represents a fraction of the total need.
While the food allergy community recognizes that education does not guarantee safety, training is a vital step in helping to decrease the risk of accidental allergen exposure. Meeting us halfway – with education, awareness and respect – changes the entire restaurant experience for families and adults who are managing food allergies.
Becoming food allergy aware also makes economic sense. The National Restaurant Association says those with food allergies represent an estimated $45 million a year revenue opportunity for the food services sector. Restaurants that accommodate benefit not only from doing the right thing, but could see a nicely bolstered bottom line as well.
In your community, you can help restaurants become more aware by encouraging them to learn more about SafeFARE, a national program that provides tools and resources to help make dining out with food allergies a safer and more enjoyable experience. SafeFARE resources are designed not only for restaurant staff, but for diners, too. As important as it is for restaurants to implement food allergen management protocols, it’s also incumbent upon the diner to work closely with the restaurant to find reasonable accommodations and to disclose his or her food allergies.
You can also make an impact by advocating for restaurant legislation in your state. FARE recently developed a toolkit, available from our website, which provides educational resources, talking points to use in meeting with your elected officials and model restaurant bill language.
Working together, we can improve the restaurant experience for 15 million Americans with food allergies.
Scott Riccio is the senior vice president of education and advocacy at Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). For more information, visit Foodallergy.org.