By Betsy Craig
The last few months we have seen a large rise in food allergy lawsuits as well as settlements. As this is my life’s work and passion, I might be more aware than the average food industry person, but it is becoming more apparent these are happening everywhere. I often wonder when the industry will step up the hospitality game to the next level in order to help so many and prevent unnecessary trips to the ER (or worse) for folks.
In May of 2018 at The Bazaarby José Andrés restaurant in Miami, a 52-year-old business man from the Los Angeles area, went to dine at this trendy south beach establishment, after having his travel planner alert the restaurant by email of his food allergies. Jason Reid, the diner, not only made sure the restaurant had advance warning via an email of his nut allergies but made sure to alert his server of his food allergies to peanuts and tree-nuts and his dining concerns. Once his food came to the table Jason took one bite and the nightmare for him began.
The Bazaarstated there were no nuts in the foods Mr. Reid was eating but the reaction began immediately, and the restaurant response was anything but hospitable. As Mr. Reid stated to Allergic Living Magazine, “It didn’t seem like they cared,” he says. “They were jerks to me. I thought to myself: they’re going to kill somebody someday. It’s scary how apathetic people are towards food allergies. He went on further to say, “dining out is something I have to do.” He hopes this lawsuit will raise awareness about food safety at restaurants. Jason plans to give the money to charity if the suit is successful. He went on to further say “the way his staff reacted tells me that there is not a culture of food safety in that organization.”
This guest is out to make a point, draw attention to the issue, and if he wins the lawsuit, he says he plans to give the money away. Not all guests are the same here but in this case his message is clear. Get on board with all sides of serving diners with food allergies or face the backlash. This comes down to basic allergen training for all. What is not sufficient is a poster put up in the kitchen 24 months ago that no one notices anymore. Nor a single training class for a GM taken and forgotten. True, proactive training and a mission to serve with success each and every time is what is going to change these stories for the better.
Similarly, in Massachusetts, a young lady went to stay at Canyon Ranch for a spa weekend. That turned into a massive nightmare when she believes she was given her allergen (a tree-nut) in error that almost cost her her life. As a food allergic person, she did her due diligence according to her. She spoke to staff in advance, reviewed the ingredient listing they provided for her that did not contain any tree-nuts, and also discussed her allergy with the server tableside. Turns out it has been reported that according to the manager the ingredients had not been updated to include the nuts in the veggie burger, so her meal did in fact contain cashew.
This incident comes down to what we believe is that ingredient listing needing to always be accurate and current as well as proper training for all. We teach in our course (AllerTrain) to always check every single time even if the staff thinks they know the answers for this very reason. Manufactures change ingredients and products all the time. Double and triple checking is the only way to ensure safety from accidently giving a food allergic person their allergen directly (not through production or cross contact issues).
Finally, on February 21, 2018 we saw another food allergy lawsuit in New Jersey come to settlement. This case was settled “amicably between the United States of America and Rider University” where “both parties agreed to enter voluntarily into a settlement agreement”. The agreement is 13 pages of terms and conditions to make dining on this University campus possible and a great deal safer for those with food allergies.
The term that is used often in the agreement is “reasonable modification” to accommodate siting Title III of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12181 and 28 C.F.R. §§ 36.201, 36.202. The fallout from this ruling is that those who serve to University and College population as asking frequently “What are reasonable modification” and would we stand up to the test? Keep an eye out for my next piece coming soon “What CAN you do to Accommodate Food Allergic Diners?” for what we at AllerTrain and Kitchens with Confidence would call reasonable as well as what the minimum is that most should be doing to accommodate.