Guest post – Can restaurants be made safe for the food allergic?

I came across a great post about food allergies and restaurants in the blog of a website named Allergy Free Shop (

The article is quite extensive in its content, from basic food allergy facts to thoughts and recommendations for restaurateurs. I think it is a valuable read for those of us who live with food allergies every day, but I also believe it makes a great primer for someone not familiar with food allergies – a grandparent learning about your newly-diagnosed child’s allergies, the mom-and-pop restaurateur that just doesn’t “get it,” the school administrator who is in denial, etc.

Rather than take excerpts and add a lot of comments, I think the article is great the way it is and I was happy when the owners of Allergy Free Shop granted me permission to reprint it here. To see the original page where the content was posted, please follow this link:

Can Restaurants Be Made Safe For The Food Allergic?

For most people, getting the wrong order at a restaurant is, at worst, a nuisance. But as far as patrons go, those with food allerg[ies] aren’t most people. Not long after taking that first bite of food that contains the offending allergen, their bodies soon rebel.

They may start vomiting, become covered in hives, or find it difficult to breathe. They can go through anaphylaxis, an extreme and often life-threatening reaction to the allergen. And there are millions of Americans with food allergies, which are becoming more prevalent and severe nationwide, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). The big eight are the most common food allergies, and account for 90% of all food allergy reactions. They include peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, egg, dairy and soy allergy.

Although the exact number of those with food allergies isn’t known, most agree that at least 8 percent of children and 5 percent of adults have a food allergy of some kind, with the numbers possibly much higher. And the challenges these diners pose for restaurants is undoubtedly mounting. In a 2007 study, FAAN found that of the 63 food allergy–related fatalities between 1996 and 2006, half involved restaurants. That statistic, members of the food-allergy community say, suggests a lack of awareness in the restaurant industry.

These advocates say that restaurants don’t understand the basics of serving customers with food allergies. A common mistake made by staff is confusing an allergy with an intolerance, which is the less severe of the two dietary restrictions. For example, many people with milk allergy have to explain the very significant difference between their allergy and lactose intolerance.

Restaurants also don’t often realize that allergy contamination can’t be easily undone. Removing the slice of cheese from a Big Mac, for example, would still not make it safe to eat for someone with a dairy allergy. “It’s molecules that can kill,” says Ming Tsai, an acclaimed chef and restaurateur, and a FAAN spokesman whose son has food allergies. “It doesn’t have to be a handful of peanuts.”

This lack of awareness in the industry prompted Massachusetts to pass a bill last year requiring restaurants to display a food-allergy awareness poster in staff areas, place labels on menus reminding customers to alert servers to any food allergies, and train “food protection managers” on food-allergy issues. The new law, which is scheduled to take effect next month, also allows qualifying restaurants to earn a “Food Allergy Friendly” designation from the US Department of Public Health.

FAAN calls the bill “landmark legislation” in the fight to make restaurants safer for people with food allergies. Their hope is that Massachusetts can serve as an example for the rest of the country, and their legislation will be replicated in other states. But it should be noted that the Massachusetts bill took five years to pass, in part because of disagreements between FAAN and the state restaurant association over its language.

One FAAN proposal that didn’t make it into the final bill was to require restaurants to create a master ingredient list so customers with food allergies would be able to know exactly what was in each dish. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association fought this part of the bill, thinking that the requirement was too onerous, and that individual restaurants would be making claims that they couldn’t back up.

The question goes to the heart of a debate over how far restaurants should have to go to accommodate everyone who walks through its front doors. As the dispute over the master ingredient list suggests, there is disagreement on this issue between food-allergy advocates and the restaurant industry. However, both tend to agree that restaurants need to be more aware of food allergies, even if that simply means being aware of their own ignorance.

Most advocates feel that restaurants have a responsibility to be 100% honest with their customers, and if they aren’t confident they can serve people with food allergies, they should divulge that to their customers, because that’s in everyone’s best interest. And if a restaurant doesn’t know exactly what’s in their food, many of these advocates feel they shouldn’t be in business.

The Chipotle chain of restaurants is a favorite among people with food allergies and celiac disease, a hypersensitivity to gluten in the small intestine. And the Denver-based company reports that it hasn’t had to bend over backwards to earn its reputation. They are essentially two things that they do that serve those with special dietary needs well, says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “We use whole, unprocessed ingredients, and we don’t have standard menu items. Both help customers make sure they don’t eat anything that can send them to the hospital.”

P.F. Chang’s is another industry leader when it comes to serving customers with food allergies or celiac disease. The Phoenix-based chain uses separate plates and cookware for people with dietary restrictions to avoid cross-contamination, and have a computer program that can filter its menu of whatever allergies a customer might have and provide a printout of available options.

One major challenge facing smaller restaurants and chains is that identifying allergens requires a lot of energy, resources and knowledge. For one thing, allergens and other potentially harmful ingredients aren’t always easy to spot. The problem arises because so many ingredients have so many different names. Wheat has a hundred different names, as does gluten. Other major challenges include increased costs, and added menu complexity.

Despite the challenges, there are several reasons restaurants may want to accommodate customers with dietary limitations, simple appreciation being one. Most people dine out to relax and avoid having to cook for themselves, and these customers find that going out to eat is often very stressful instead. This is why they are so grateful when they do find a restaurant that can serve them tasty, non-life-threatening fare—the epitome of comfort food.

Of course, there is another, more material (financial) benefit to running an allergy- or celiac-friendly restaurant: increased customer loyalty. The child with a food allergy usually determines where the family is going to eat. So instead of gaining just one loyal customer, the restaurant just gained four or five. And with relatively few establishments catering to customers with dietary restrictions, those that do can expect to draw steady business from an underserved market—comprised of not just the 12 million Americans with food allergies, but all their family members as well.

Along with increasing business, going allergy-friendly could (in the long run) cut costs by lowering insurance rates. When a restaurant becomes designated as allergy-friendly, the hope is that insurance companies will then assess that the restaurant has reduced their liability. Since they aren’t going to risk cross-contamination and getting someone sick, or worse, it makes business sense that their insurance rates should then be lower.

We at the Allergy Free Shop whole heartily support the new legislation passed in Massachusetts, and we strongly encourage other States throughout the nation to take a second look at providing well-defined rules and regulations for their restaurant industries – rules that help keep our food allergic children safe from potentially catastrophic reactions, and provide us parents with the opportunity to have an enjoyable meal with our families when eating out, without the stress or anxiety associated with these possible situations.

Food Allergy Data

3.3 million – number of Americans who are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts
1997–2002 – time it took peanut allergies to double in children
6.9 million – number of Americans with seafood allergies
5 – percentage of all Americans who have food allergies
1/17 – frequency of kids younger than 3 having food allergies
90 – percentage of reactions the top eight allergens cause
911 – number to call if someone has a anaphylactic reaction in your store

My sincere appreciation again to the Allergy Free Shop for allowing me to reprint their blog post. I would also reiterate that this may be a great piece to pass around to friends and others who are just learning about food allergies or who need to learn.

The post includes some comments near the end about the economic interest restaurants have to become allergy-friendly. For more on this, please see the February AllergyEats Blog entry where I used my “prior life’s” financial analysis techniques in an attempt to quantify the impact (“How much are we worth – the ‘Veto Vote’“). You might be surprised.

Also, in an effort to affect restaurant behavior as well as help each other, I once again ask that you please rate any recent (and future) restaurant experiences at our main AllergyEats site ( You’ve helped tremendously with ratings over the first 5 months of the site, but there are still so many restaurants to go. And it will continue to be true that each additional rating increases the value of AllergyEats for our entire food allergy and intolerance community.



    Excellent. Excellent. Excellent. I agree that this would be a wonderful well-written “primer” for those who need an explanation or who just don’t get it.


    This is great. Massachusets is laying the ground work for those with food allergies to feel safe eating out. Other states need to take heed.

Leave a Reply