If you are the parent of a child with food allergies, you know the struggle of tackling a restaurant meal. And if your child has a severe allergy, with the possibility of anaphylaxis, you may avoid restaurants entirely. You couldn’t be blamed for never eating out, especially with recent research bringing to light the inadequate efforts by most restaurants to accommodate and protect customers with special diets, including food intolerances and food allergies.
Restaurants Not Prepared for Customers With Food Allergies
The study, which was conducted by researchers from Michigan State University, set out to determine what restaurants do to meet the needs of customers with food allergies or food intolerances. What they found was not encouraging, but it justified parents who avoid restaurants because of a child’s food allergies. The study used surveys to find out how restaurant managers and other decision makers accommodate special diets and how aware they are of food allergies and intolerances.
The results of the survey responses indicated that most restaurants are not very aware of issues surrounding food allergies and intolerances. Most did not have printed materials with information about ingredients in dishes and did not have plans to create such materials. Only about 20 percent of the restaurants provided allergen information on their websites. Furthermore, they were largely unaware of legislation that may be coming to require that restaurants provided printed allergen information.
While very few restaurants tracked incidents in which a customer had a reaction to a dish, nearly 75 percent claimed to have trained workers to respond to such a reaction. Most restaurants said they offered gluten-free dishes but had little awareness of how prevalent gluten is in certain foods. Based on these findings, one could conclude that many so-called gluten-free dishes cannot be relied upon to truly be free of gluten.
Why Restaurants Need to Step it Up
The results from the above survey certainly indicate that there is room for improvement in how restaurants accommodate their customers. There are 12 million potential consumers in this country who have a food allergy, including three million children. More than 30,000 people are hospitalized each year because of accidentally ingesting an allergen. About 150 people die each year in the U.S. as the result of a food allergen. These statistics don’t even take into account people with food intolerances.
For restaurants it is just good business to not neglect this proportion of the population. More importantly, this is a safety issue. Without adequate or accurate information about ingredients, as well as training for staff to keep allergen-free foods uncontaminated, people can get hurt or even die. Federal laws currently don’t require restaurants to identify allergens in foods, but that may change soon.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act requires restaurants to provide nutritional information upon request, but the information does not have to come with allergen warnings. The Federal Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires manufacturers to include these warnings, though, and the law may soon extend to restaurants. Restaurants have an ethical obligation to warn customers, but they may also soon have a legal obligation to do so.
How to Navigate Dining Out
If you have a child with a food allergy, deciding whether or not you can risk dining out is an important and personal choice. There is no way to ensure your child will not be exposed to an allergen if you are not in control of the food, but if you do choose to go out, there are some steps you can take to minimize the risk and keep your child as safe as possible:
- Check the website from home first. Some restaurants will list ingredients and allergen warnings on their sites.
- Tell your server about your child’s allergy. If your child is seriously allergic to an ingredient, you can request that the kitchen take special care in preparing his meal and not using cookware that may have been contaminated with the allergen. If possible, talk to the chef or manager.
- Eat out at times that are less busy. A busy kitchen is more likely to take less care with your child’s meal. A slow time also gives you time to talk to your server and get your questions answered.
- Always be prepared for a reaction. Have your child’s medicine on hand, including an epinephrine auto injector if anaphylaxis is possible.
- Make an alternate plan, just in case. Maybe you have an old standby restaurant you trust, or you can bring a safe meal for your child. If anything about a restaurant makes you uncomfortable, you have a back-up.
Keeping your child safe when at restaurants is not always easy, especially when those restaurants have little awareness of allergies. Be safe, take precautions and if in doubt, don’t risk eating out until the industry has taken better steps to accommodate customers with food allergies.