Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gluten-Free Dining, With a Side of Controversy

A couple of years ago, I wrote about proposed legislation that aimed to increase food allergy awareness and ingredient familiarity in restaurant kitchens. Championed by superstar chef and food allergy advocate Ming Tsai, the proposed bill would also ask restaurants to put a notice to customers on the menu that it is their obligation to inform their server of any food allergies.

At the time, I wrote “As customers, it is our job to advocate for ourselves, ask questions, and disclose relevant information, just as it is the responsibility of servers and kitchen staff to try to answer our questions as thoroughly as possible and accommodate us as much as can be reasonably expected. This bill makes that process a lot easier.”

And I still strongly believe that. Between understanding and preventing cross-contamination to keeping a master list of all ingredients, such moves make the dining experience easier for both the customer and the wait staff, who would have access to a lot more information when customers inquire about the menu. It’s about shared responsibility.

Imagine, then, how pleased I was last week when I saw this update in the Boston Globe about how the Mass Department of Public Health plans to implement these changes this summer.

(And, coincidentally, having just dined at Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger again recently, I can vouch for how stress-free and relaxing the experience it is when you know your meal is safe.)

Perhaps I am just na├»ve, but what I was not prepared for were the angry, ignorant, and vitriolic comments readers left at the end of the article. Sure, there were comments that applauded the measures and saw the potential, but I was shocked at how many were so passionately awful about it. For some, it seems that any legislation, whether it directly affects them or not, is anathema and is yet another example of the “nanny state” liberal politics in Massachusetts.


Here’s the rub: if you don’t have food allergies, you don’t have to ask any questions, and nothing about the food you would have ordered anyway will change. This bill isn’t an iteration of Big Brother and won’t dictate what you eat, it will simply make it safer for others with food allergies to order food, and will make it easier for kitchens to share information about their ingredients.

Others complained that waiters will have to now explain the entire menu to everyone, or that the private sector should not have to cater to people with food allergies with the government looking over their shoulder.


Only people with food allergies and specific questions about dishes will need explanations, and if that’s not you, why do you care? And if someone in your dining party has allergies, why would you begrudge that person his or her questions?

I just don’t see how training kitchen staff on clean cross-contamination measures or having a comprehensive list of ingredients on hand is forcing the private sector to cater to us.

I’ve lived with a diagnosis of celiac disease for six years and I’ve learned a lot about how to eat gluten-free. Through trial and error, I’ve also learned how to eat out safely and with confidence. I love it when places have GF menus, but I don’t expect them. I go out knowing the risks and am fully responsible for them. I alert my server of my issue and ask questions politely. I’m not demanding, and if all I can eat is a salad (and that rarely happens these days), I am fine with that.

I don’t expect staff to cater to me, and I don’t get bent out of shape when it turns out there isn’t much to eat. That’s the risk I take when I go to restaurants without GF menus.

But what I do expect? I expect that when I ask a few simple questions, the staff will be able to answer them. I expect that when I am expressly told something is GF that it truly is safe, and hasn’t been cross-contaminated. Implicitly, that means the kitchen understands that telling me something is GF means they’re telling me I won’t get sick. If this bill streamlines this process for all parties involved, that’s great.

Fortunately, my risks are not potentially life-threatening the way they are for others with severe food allergies. I take them extremely seriously, but if some uninformed waiter serves me food that contains gluten, I will be sick for a few days. It’s unpleasant and unnecessary but in the immediate moment, it won’t kill me.

Others aren’t so lucky. Is it really that inconvenient to make sure the people preparing the food know what’s in it?

My personal favorite of the comments went something like this: Shouldn’t people with allergies know that?

We’re not under any illusions our dining staff should be responsible for diagnosing us. We’re well aware of our situation and that’s why we disclose any allergies and ask questions.

I was once on a plane with a man who was outraged he couldn’t eat peanuts on the flight because someone on board had such a severe allergy he/she could experience anaphylaxis from being near them. He didn’t even have peanuts; he was incensed that someone’s life precluded his right to eat hypothetical peanuts.


To all the angry, put-out people out there, perhaps if they were to develop food allergies they would refrain from eating outside their home. But if they are ever in the position where they want to be social and go out to eat and what they eat could hurt them, I hope for their sakes they receive the correct information.


Unknown said...

Laurie, thank you so much for this. In a world where we should maybe think about being more accepting of others and supporting people with (invisible) disabilities, it blows my mind that people perceive accommodating others as a life inconvenience. I recently read an article, similar to your guy on a plane with peanuts incident, about a school that wanted to go peanut free/allergen accommodating, and parents were outraged that they wouldn't be able to give their kids pb&j for lunch. Heaven forbid the opportunity to teach your kid tolerance and to be accepting of others.
We with (invisible) disabilities that "come out" in public, like food allergies at restaurants, are affected on so many levels by these accommodations. A good waiter at a restaurant, and an establishment that accommodates dietary restrictions, not only makes it safe for me to eat there, and of course leads up to having a good time and essentially voting with our dollar, but in some small way, reinforces our position as people with disabilities living a life publicly and openly.

Kairol Rosenthal said...

While the negative comments about this law tend to view it as an opportunity to coddle a small percentage of the population, I see it more as a public health issue. If food allergy contamination is sending 125,000 people annually to the ER, why not do what we can to reduce that unnecessary burden on the health care system. Also that the restaurant association embraced this law speaks volumes and discredits the complaints that this will be too cumbersome for restaurants to follow. My brother is a chef and I'm curious to hear what he has to say.


The Celiac Diva said...

Bravo! Great post! I'm in the process of being diagnosed. Thanks for all your great thoughts!

Erin E Lyon-GF Fitness said...

Completely agreed about the healthcare burden and monetary loss, not to even address the "human" loss. Unfortunately it seems like the the phrase "common sense isn't so common" is increasingly true. It seems that some individuals are so blindly true to one side that they don't even notice any positive impact that another perspective can bring. Here's to hoping that common sense and allergen address will become more widespread.

Anonymous said...

How did we become so self-centered as a culture and as individuals that we become incensed at the thought of giving up peanuts for a single flight? Something's not right in paradise.


Dr. Brad Shook said...

These food allergens are so rampant and detrimental to our health, there definitely needs to be more public awareness. Unfortunately many people don;t have compassion for others, which in my experience usually comes from lack of understanding and education.

Annie said...

I love this post so much. Having had Celiac Disease for almost 10 years now, I'm a fairly seasoned pro when it comes to eating out. I've learned which restaurants are willing to be helpful and which are set in their ways. I subsequently don't visit the latter anymore. But I agree, food allergies are serious business these days and there needs to be more awareness and access to information.

Aviva said...

I'd be leery of a law that held restaurants liable if cross-contamination occurred, partly because for folks with ultra-sensitive reactions, it takes so little of an allergen to set them off. But that's not what I understand this to be about, and I truly don't understand the controversy from folks with the negative reactions to the article.

I'm new to eating gluten-free, but I've had peanut, tree nut and shellfish allergies almost my entire life. I think it's *awesome* when restaurants are able to talk to me about ingredient lists and help make sure I don't get something that could kill me. :-)

Yes, there are times I hold up a line while I ask detailed questions about ingredients, and that can be an inconvenience to others. But jeesh, do some of these people think that if I have a food allergy, it means I should never, ever eat in a restaurant?!

Great post, as always, Laurie. Sorry I'm a little late catching up with it.

Slightly related: I spoke to the head chef at Disneyland today about their gluten-free offerings and my other allergies. Apparently, you can pick up a list at Disneyland's City Hall of current gluten-free menu items throughout the park and at the Disney hotel restaurants. Wow! He even gave me advice about avoiding the ice cream place on Main Street because they roast peanuts in house and that has, in the past, triggered people's allergies. Um, I had a point here, somewhere. :-) I think it was that I'm happy that folks working in the food industry are really getting it when it comes to food allergies. :-)

loshakova said...

I missed your original post, but my reaction to this is "Time to move to Massachusetts!" Thank you for your post.

Laurie said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone! Would you believe I was sidetracked this week because I got glutened? And at a national chain with supposed clear information on allergies after I'd spoken to an employee and a manager?

Gah. I hate when that happens, and it unravels all the hard work.

Anyway, I agree that it's a public health issue and I do hope this bill will reduce hospital trips and admissions.

And I'll admit it-Massachusetts has a lot of problems (never mind the extreme weather and totally exorbitant cost of living and real estate) but as a patient, I feel lucky to live here. Between the world-class hospitals, universal health care, and other mandates that actually serve patients' interests, I know I have a better situation than I would in other places.

Anonymous said...

I think people with severe food allergies are crazy for eating out in the first place. Why would you put your life at risk? There is no way any normal restaurant can guarantee any meal to be safe, so they should not be held responsible for someone getting sick.

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