empowering people with life threatening food allergies

Eating Out with Food Allergies

Even the Wall Street Journal is talking about food allergies. They published an article a few weeks ago titled “Eating Out When You Have an Allergy.” Check out the text of the article below.

When I go out to eat at restaurants, I always check with the waiter or waitress but I also apply my internal radar to see how much I believe whether the restaurant staff really knows what they are talking about. If they seem genuinely concerned and check with the chef then I’ll generally believe them, but if they make jokes, seem unconcerned, disinterested etc. I may choose a more safe item on the menu or really grill the staff until they know the severity of the allergy.–Neelu


Eating Out When You Have an Allergy
We Try to Avoid Some Ingredients; A Burger on Foil
April 19, 2007; Page D3

Food-allergy sufferers have more to consider when dining out than whether to order their meat well done or medium. One bite of the wrong ingredient can turn a pleasant evening out into a night visit to the emergency room.

An estimated 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a Washington, D.C.-based information clearinghouse. Milk, wheat, peanuts and eggs are among the common foods the body perceives as harmful, creating antibodies and triggering the immune system to release chemicals, such as histamine. The results include respiratory distress and hives. Millions of others suffer from food intolerances — an inability to properly digest certain foods, such as milk.

The Food and Drug Administration advises that restaurant operators be aware of the eight major food allergens. But there are no required allergy-safety guidelines for restaurants to follow. Avoiding problem foods and cross-contamination, such as french fries cooked in the same oil as shrimp, requires effective communication between customers, servers and kitchen staff.

Massachusetts is among several states trying to promote awareness among restaurant staff: Legislative proposals include requiring food-allergy training as part of the certification process for restaurant operators. Legislation related to food allergies and restaurants is also pending in Michigan, Montana, New York and North Carolina, according to FAAN.

To test how responsive restaurants are to special requests regarding food allergies and other dietary restrictions, we ate sit-down meals at five randomly selected national chains. Our testers suffered from a variety of food allergies and intolerances.

We found it’s important to educate yourself about meals containing potential allergens before actually dining out. Expect to be persistent while ordering — and occasionally pushy — if you want to get crucial information about restaurant ingredients and cooking practices.

Letting servers know about dietary restrictions is just a first step. In some restaurants, we let the manager know about our concerns, so that our meal would get extra attention in the kitchen. We asked about the kitchen’s procedures for avoiding cross-contamination as a reminder to keep our food away from hazardous ingredients. We discovered that some use separate culinary tools or cook on foil to prevent cross-contamination.

All employees in our test were accommodating, but some were more informed about their menus than others. We couldn’t check for ingredients at restaurant Web sites ahead of time because they weren’t listed online. Companies say menus change frequently and ingredient lists are too voluminous. Our testers didn’t have even mild reactions after the meals.

We dined at a T.G.I. Friday’s with a peanut-allergy sufferer. The server didn’t know the blend of vegetable oil used for frying (we wanted to avoid traces of peanut oil). She said she couldn’t communicate with the cooks because they didn’t speak English. A manager, who said it was her first day, unsuccessfully tried to read labels on the oil containers. Our tester ate spaghetti instead of chicken tenders and french fries since we were unsure about the oil. A T.G.I. Friday’s spokesman said a list of meals permissible for certain allergies is usually posted in the kitchen but was probably missing.

Our server at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro asked us about allergies or dietary restrictions before we raised the subject. When our tester explained his life-threatening allergies to peanuts, sesame and cabbage, the server inquired in the kitchen about whether the sauces on the table were permissible. She learned that one was off-limits. The restaurant serves orders family-style, so we asked that all food be prepared without the offending ingredients. She disclosed that a cook inadvertently added sesame oil to our orange peel chicken, and prepared the dish correctly a second time. We appreciated her honesty. The meal was tasty, even without the ingredient.

Our tester at Romano’s Macaroni Grill is allergic to shellfish but could eat other fish. We ordered salmon, but were concerned about cross-contamination with shellfish. The server said the two types of fish were prepared in different areas of the kitchen. Our dinner was satisfying, and our tester was symptom-free.

The staff at Ruby Tuesday was attentive to our tester who suffers pepper allergy and her son, whose life-threatening allergy precluded dairy and beef derivatives. Our server jotted down the restrictions. She said everything contained pepper, but the chef could eliminate it, unless the ingredients were already processed. A manager brought us the label from a box of chicken tenders. They did not contain milk, so our dairy-allergic tester could indulge. The manager offered to cook the mother a hamburger on foil, to avoid pepper residue on the grill.

Our tester at Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill suffers from celiac disease, in which the body reacts abnormally to gluten, a protein found in many cereal grains, causing inflammation and damage to the small intestine. We had to avoid anything containing wheat, which we learned is widely present, yet invisible, in many restaurant foods. We couldn’t eat anything marinated (the seasoning contains wheat), for example, and skipped the rice pilaf. We special-ordered plain salmon and vegetables, and requested that our food be shielded from anything containing wheat, even residue on the grill. The server remembered to omit garlic bread from our order.

Applebee’s salmon without marinade and broccoli instead of rice pilaf. Celiac disease (gluten intolerance); can’t eat wheat. The company trains servers to provide a guest-relations phone number for information about common food allergens that may be contained in menu items. It does not guarantee food is allergen free, due to possible cross-contamination. The salmon was grilled without marinade as requested. The server remembered to omit the garlic bread.
Romano’s Macaroni Grill* Salad, grilled salmon with honey teriyaki glaze and spinach orzo pasta. Shellfish allergy. Employees learn about common food allergens through training, reinforcement from management and manuals. Our salmon was prepared away from shellfish to avoid cross-contamination.
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Salt and pepper calamari appetizer; orange peel chicken entrée, cooked with chili peppers. Our entrée was cooked in soybean oil. Peanut, sesame and cabbage allergies. A five-day training course includes instruction on food allergens contained in specific menu items. Employees carry reference cards. Restaurant computers generate lists of dishes permissible for certain allergies. The server initiated a discussion about dietary restrictions and checked with the chef about permissible foods and sauces. She was the most informed of any in our test.
Ruby Tuesday A hamburger without pepper and cooked on foil to avoid cross-contamination; chicken tenders. Pepper allergy (mother); dairy and beef allergies (son). On-the-job and computer training teaches servers about special requests and dietary restrictions. Employees are instructed never to guess, but to read food labels or refer a manager to the table. A manager showed us the label from the chicken tenders, to see if they contained milk. The fried shrimp dish wasn’t labeled so we passed.
T.G.I Friday’s Spaghetti. Our tester wanted chicken tenders but we passed because we were unsure about the cooking oil. Peanut allergy. Servers and bartenders learn the most common allergens from a coach during their first full shift. A list of meals containing specific allergens is posted in kitchens, but a spokesman said it may have been missing at the restaurant we visited. Our server said she couldn’t communicate with kitchen staff about cooking oil because the cooks didn’t speak English. A manager tried to help, but couldn’t because it was her first day.

3 Responses to “Eating Out with Food Allergies”

  1. Liza

    My friend on Orkut shared this link with me and I’m not dissapointed at all that I came here.

  2. Jenna

    This isn’t a bad site, but you have omitted one of the hardest allergens to avoid in the U.S. from your study: Soy. I have a soy allergy, and my family loved eating out until my allergy advanced to the anaphylactic stage and I became unable to tolerate any soy whatsoever. Now eating out becomes a difficult situation, requiring us to call ahead and plan my meals in advance. With soy hidden by certain code words (natural & artificial flavors being my worst nightmares), it can be difficult for the restaurant to guarantee that they are aware of all the possible sources of allergens.


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