Being able to inform and accommodate guests who have food allergies is a service some restaurants eagerly provide. It’s a smart way to attract the estimated 15 million people who suffer from them plus the friends and family members who will be dining with them.
But it could soon be mandatory for every restaurant in Maryland to at all times have a staffer on premise who can give guests accurate guidance regarding possible food allergens used as ingredients in the restaurant’s offerings. And the Maryland effort, if successful, may turn out to be the tipping point for similar laws nationwide.
Here’s how the General Assembly of Maryland describes Senate bill SB0409: “Requiring a restaurant, beginning March 1, 2015, to request that a customer inform the employee taking the customer's food order of any known food allergies before ordering; authorizing a county to require a restaurant, beginning March 1, 2015, to have on the premises at specified times an employee who has completed and passed a specified food allergen awareness training course and is available to discuss meal options with customers who have food allergies....”
The bill has also been introduced in Maryland’s House of Representatives, where it is known as HB1197. The House version would create a statewide mandate; the Senate version would give individual counties a choice.
The Maryland law, should it be adopted, wouldn’t be the first of its kind in the country. That honor goes to Massachusetts, which in 2011 enacted the Food Allergy Awareness Act, whose provisions are similar to those in the proposed Maryland law. Rhode Island adopted a similar law last year.
These laws are much-needed from the perspective of food allergy activist groups, whose efforts continue to gain traction across the country. But at the restaurant level, some aspects of full implementation could be challenging.
Operators will at all times have to have an employee with food allergen expertise ready to counsel any customer who asks for information about specific dishes listed on the menu. Given that the most common food allergens—milk and dairy products; eggs and egg products; fish and shellfish; wheat; soy and soy products: peanuts and tree nuts like almonds and cashews—are ubiquitous on restaurant menus, a lengthy tableside vetting might be required to address the concerns of certain customers. It could be especially challenging for restaurants that offer multicourse tasting menus where the ingredients for many dishes change frequently, perhaps even nightly, to reflect seasonal availability.
On the positive side, there is a go-to source for food allergy training that’s specific to the needs of restaurant workers. it’s the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ServSafe program, whose allergen training program is available online. You can bet that other states will follow the lead of Massachusetts, Rhode island and Maryland in making in-house food allergen expertise mandatory. Some operators may wish to take ServSafe course now to get ahead of the curve.
In the meantime, do you think you or your restaurant’s staff already knows enough to advise customers about the potential allergy risks that may be present in the food your restaurant serves? It matters because if a staffer gives the wrong answers, a customer could inadvertently suffer a severe allergic food reaction or, in the worst case scenario, go into anaphylactic shock halfway through his or her meal. This short quiz will assess how much you and your employees know about food allergies.