People with food allergies don't want to feel different, don't want to be restricted in where they go or what they do. Yet common sense tells us that restaurants are potential sinkholes of allergens lurking not just in every food but in the utensils used to make the food, even the very air wafting around the kitchen.
What to do? Keep those with allergies out of restaurants? Nobody wants that. What about listing the complete ingredients of every food on a menu? Not practical unless you plan on replacing short, cheap printed menus with electronic books to cover the hundreds of pages of fine print necessary and be updatable every time an ingredient changed.
Massachusetts is planning on a middle course. A story by Stephen Smith in the Boston Globe revealed that the Massachusetts state Department of Public Health will vote in April on whether it should require restaurants and their workers to be better informed about allergies and respond when customers mention their allergies.
Although most peoples' immediate reaction might be, "of course they should," statewide regulations are notoriously bad for getting "shoulds" correct.
What will Massachusetts require?
Every menu in the state would be emblazoned with this admonition: "Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy."
Oh. You'd never have thought of that on your own, I'm sure.
This one sounds a bit better.
thousands of restaurant workers would undergo training and then return to their kitchens, sharing lessons on how to prevent dishes from being contaminated with allergy-inducing ingredients.
Wow. Thousands of trained workers. Can't complain about that. Until you find out that Massachusetts has 17,000 restaurants that the regulations will cover. (None of them fast food restaurants, BTW. They would be exempt for the time being.) Those thousands amount to one per restaurant.
By next January, at least one worker from each restaurant would be expected to undergo training, which largely involves viewing a video Tsai helped create. It would be up to local boards of health, which are responsible for assuring that restaurants abide by food safety laws, to monitor whether establishments are complying.
It's not clear from the article what happens if that one trained employee leaves.
As for the rest of the staff, the regulations "would force restaurants to plaster a food allergy poster on the kitchen wall."
A slightly more reassuring part of the article is this section:
Suzanne Condon, director of environmental health at the Department of Public Health, described how restaurant staff should respond when a customer reports an allergy to peanuts, for example. "The server is supposed to notify the staff involved with the preparation of the food that a member of the party has a food allergy," Condon said.
That not only means making sure there are no peanuts in the dish the diner has ordered. It also means being vigilant that the utensils and surfaces used in the preparation of that order have not been exposed to peanuts.
That's better, certainly, at least from our point of view as consumers. How feasible this is in a busy restaurant is harder to answer. In a world in which peanuts are forbidden from entire airplanes and school cafeterias because of the danger of accidental contamination, how can a restaurant that uses peanuts in dishes keep them totally separate from all foods?
The regulations introduced yesterday reflect the handiwork of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. The Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick broadly endorsed the concept last year by adopting the Food Allergy Awareness Act, leaving the specifics to the Department of Public Health.
Dr. Michael Pistiner of Leominster, who treats patients every day with food allergies, helped develop the regulations. Still, he said yesterday, diners who know they have reactions to certain ingredients must be their own best advocates.
"This is really a ground-breaking law," said Pistiner, an allergist affiliated with Children’s Hospital Boston. "But people with food allergies are still going to need to be vigilant and choose wisely."
Of course, and I would have ended this post with a similar homily. The nicest thing I can say about Massachusetts's plan is that it is a first step that might spark more awareness. It's not a solution in any sense. We have a very long way to go before allergens in restaurant food are properly addressed.