I am glad to see Lenny Russo of Heartland walking back, in his blog, from the cliff of threatening to move out of St. Paul if a local councilman followed through on creating strict standards for how local restaurants deal with food allergens. But a variety of media commentary in recent days on the subject has me wondering just how much anyone understands about food allergies that are so severe you might die.
In recent years our food community has become increasingly aware of allergies and intolerances, which make eating out risky or miserable for more and more people. Why their incidence is skyrocketing is little understood, but the preponderance of gluten-free foods, bakeries, and restaurant menus alone indicates a lot can be done with a minimum of awareness.
But when the risk veers past stomach cramps and a panicked dash to the toilet to hospitalization and possible death, the restaurant community is oddly less evolved. My son has been allergic to peanuts since he was two years old. The peanut allergy (and others) can produce an allergic response like bee stings, causing swelling so severe that the allergic person can no longer breathe. Death is just minutes away under those circumstances.There are four kids on our block with this allergy. It is no longer rare.
So we carry around Epinephrine injectors to stave off swelling and buy time to get to a hospital where they turn off the immune response with steroids. But sometimes doctors can’t turn the response off and people simply die. When we eat out it’s a life or death issue.
Councilmember Melvin Carter III had been told by a popcorn/candy store that its products were safe for a peanut allergic relative. They were not. His solution was to propose regulations requiring all city food outlets to have a document on-hand detailing all ingredients and preparations.
Too much? Perhaps. Ineffectual? Probably. A threat to a restaurant’s competitive position? Please. If masking your inventive use of cinnamon is all that stands between success and oblivion, you don't really understand why people eat out. Beyond the ken of certain restaurants? Well then they should close. If you are unable to detail what’s in your food, no one should eat at your joint, and you have no right to be in business.
We take full responsibility for our son’s allergy, but we live in terror of the day a restaurant misleads us about what’s in its food due to ignorance or incompetence. That’s not a responsibility you can throw back on the customer.
Lenny Russo’s suggestions are a mixed bag. Reminding customers to be sure to mention their food allergies is naïve. Trust me, no one needs to remind me to tell the server my kid can’t eat peanuts or peanut oil or he could die. It’s top of mind, all the time.
Russo’s second proposal, increased training of restaurant personnel about food allergies, is a good idea. Servers need to understand the difference between a picky eater and someone who will be in the hospital if you don’t take proper precautions.
My friend and colleague Andrew Zimmern, in a conversation at the State Fair on Minnesota Public Radio, was regaled with Mary Lucia’s waitressing reminiscences of diners labeling every dislike as an allergy. Anyone with a restaurant background has such stories. They have made servers and restaurants cynical about food allergies. Lucia’s implication was that food allergies are bogus. Every ignorant media utterance further confuses the issue, puts my kid at greater risk, and makes regulations more likely.
Is it asking too much of restaurants to know what’s in its dishes and train staff to be responsive when notified of a life-threatening allergy? To empower a manager or cook to personally discuss an allergy with the diner? (We are not asking you to change your recipes. We are not asking you to accommodate us with special menus. We are not asking you stop frying in peanut oil.)
Because if you can’t do that, one day you are going to kill someone. And yes, Lenny, I agree that there is no regulation or code on the books that can stop carelessness. And it is the best restaurants, like yours, that know where their food comes from and exactly what’s in it, that are least likely to send my kid to the hospital.
A couple years ago in Texas, we were denied service in a restaurant after mentioning our son’s peanut allergy. The proprietor began ranting about lawsuits and regulations and wanted no part of the risk. I asked why he didn’t wheel all his customers around to prevent them from slipping, then? Or pre-chew the food to prevent people from choking? I said all I was trying to do was to keep my child safe and let him live as normal a life as possible. That I took full responsibility, once I had the information.
But I did tell him that if he didn’t know how his food was prepared or his staff was not trained, that he was shirking his responsibility and if he killed a child of mine (or an adult, for that matter), I would gladly sue him into oblivion. And I’d say the same to everyone from Gordon Ramsay to Colonel Sanders. Having a business does not give you the right to operate with blatant or benign disregard just because you find it tedious.
Food allergies are real. Food allergic diners represent a substantial percentage of the dining public. You don’t want them to stay home, trust me. So know what’s in your food. That’s all we ask.