It’s High Time Restaurants Got Serious About Food Allergies

Why this law student thinks it's time for the restaurant industry to take greater ownership of keeping customers with allergies safe.

5 March 2020
By Hannah Lank
Hannah in Nashville, TN.

I’ve been thinking a lot about food allergies and the restaurant industry. While I see some progress made over the past 10 years in allergy awareness and training, the change has been uneven. There still remains a wide variation in training and protocols among restaurants in terms of how they handle food allergies.

I’ve become intrigued by this radical notion: Shouldn’t the restaurant – make that the vast majority of restaurants – be proactive? For starters, should it be the responsibility of the restaurant and its servers to ask diners if they have any food allergies? 

We expect those with food allergies to do the asking about menu items and whether a restaurant can accommodate. Any of us with an ounce of self-preservation will reliably do that. But given the spike in the number of people dining out with severe food allergies, it seems to me that shared responsibility between the dining establishment and the customer is a reasonable and modern expectation for the 2020s. 

I’d argue it’s time for the restaurant industry as a whole to move toward greater ownership for keeping customers with food allergies safe – from communication to training to ingredient transparency.

We applaud those who ensure kitchen and serving staff are trained. But for every restaurant that has instituted new allergy safety measures, there’s another launching a policy that “we can’t guarantee” your food won’t have food cross-contact. Then the flummoxed allergic diner is left to try to wonder: Is the risk real or an effort to avoid a lawsuit? 

Cavalier vs. Attentive

On a recent trip to Nashville, Hannah had the pleasure of experiencing a restaurant going the extra mile with allergy responsibility.
Hannah in Nashville, TN.

At a restaurant, I always mention as I order: “I’m allergic to nuts, so if you would please ensure there aren’t any nuts in my meal, that would be great.” Sometimes the server writes down my allergy, sometimes they say something to acknowledge they heard me, or even send the manager over to talk with me. But sometimes they say nothing. Did the server really listen?

It’s not like we get to troop into the kitchen to watch the cook or chef prepare our food. We have to depend on the staff to get it right.

When a restaurant clearly does really “get” food allergies, it means the world to a diner like me. On a pre-COVID-19 trip to Nashville, I had the pleasure of experiencing a restaurant going the extra mile with allergy responsibility.

Before taking our order, the server at Rolf & Daughters in Nashville’s Germantown asked if there were any food allergies at the table. When I spoke up, she then proceeded to verify that both my food and my drink orders would be safe. My jaw almost hit the floor. I can count on one hand the number of times my server has asked about my allergies in relation to a beverage, even though many alcohols do contain allergens such as nuts. 

In Europe, regulators have chosen to compel restaurants to pay more attention to food allergies. The European Union enacted legislation in 2014 that requires restaurants to declare in writing (on signs, menus) or orally when dishes contain any of the continent’s top 14 allergens. So it’s common for restaurant staff to inquire about food allergies. As well, five U.S. states and a few cities and counties now have restaurant allergy laws. 

These are encouraging developments. Yet informing patrons still doesn’t always mean you’ll accommodate them. 

“Can’t Guarantee”

I’ve read about an Indian restaurant in London that respectfully declines to serve individuals with peanut or tree nut allergies because of the high risk of food cross-contact. I understand the restaurant’s position – especially since I once had an allergic reaction to Indian food from a restaurant that promised my food was safe. Still, I worry about allergy exclusion gaining traction as a restaurant trend.

One of the most frustrating things I can hear at a restaurant is that they “can’t guarantee” that my food is safe for me to eat, even if it doesn’t explicitly contain any of my allergens. 

This happened to me at a beach club in Greece last year, where the food-service staff warned me against eating even the plainest, non-nut-containing dish, because they had great uncertainty about what “might” contain nuts. I was left hungry, but I also don’t think this kind of behavior is necessary to protect individuals with food allergies.  

No Excuse for Serving Allergens

The degree to which cross-contact in the restaurant industry can be prevented is a contentious topic. But to be served food that contains your allergen, after communicating your food allergies, is just plain wrong. In the next 10 years, the restaurant industry as a whole needs to embrace this view: it is completely unreasonable for diners who disclosed food allergies to be served their allergens.

A message in Europe’s legislation is that people with life-threatening allergies also have a right to know what is in their food. It does seem reasonable that a person with life-threatening food allergies can ask to read an accurate list of the ingredients in the food they are about to order. It’s also reasonable to expect that person’s food will be prepared in a way that minimizes cross-contact.

As a first-year law student, I am intrigued by the possible right of people with food allergies to take legal action against restaurants that serve them their allergens. In 2019, a woman with a nut allergy sued a luxury spa in the Berkshires after they served her a veggie burger that contained cashews and she had a serious allergic reaction. She had repeatedly checked that the burger would be safe for her to eat. In 2016, police in Quebec considered criminally charging a server who served minced salmon to a man with a fish allergy. Those charges weren’t pursued, but the diner did suffer a life-threatening reaction.

I don’t want to see restaurants turning away people with food allergies because they’re scared of being sued. But I think a balance can be found. People with food allergies and restaurants need to work together to make dining out a safe and pleasurable experience. Restaurants should be transparent and honest about their ingredients, and treat food allergies seriously. People with food allergies should always carry their auto-injectors and be vigilant about their food allergies. 

Just as restaurants are required to serve diners in general food that is prepared with proper food handling techniques and therefore safe to eat, they should also be required to serve diners with food allergies food that is free from their allergens. If restaurants can do the former, there is no clear reason why they can’t also do the latter. 

What kinds of improvements for diners with food allergies would you like to see in the restaurant industry this decade? Please tell us on Allergic Living’s Facebook page.

Hannah Lank, who is studying law in Toronto, is a regular Allergic Living contributor.

Related Reads:
What Restaurants are Getting Right and Wrong on Food Allergies
Williamsburg Appeal: Historic Win for Gluten-free and Food Allergy Rights