While it might be difficult for some afflicted with food allergies to find their perfect meal on a night out, a bill heading before Maryland’s legislators would require restaurants to make appropriate considerations for those diners.
“It’s an education bill,” said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery County, who is sponsoring the food allergy awareness bill in the House.
The bill would require restaurants to designate a “person in charge” who would watch an approved video educating them on food allergies. When patrons with food allergies enter a restaurant, they could ask to speak to the person in charge and find out what on the menu they could eat.
Restaurants would also be required to put a sign in the kitchen that explained the dangers of cross-contamination. Even if the food does not contain cheese, for example, the chef might have touched cheese, and the patron might still experience an allergic reaction.
But the Maryland Restaurant Association said it doesn’t know enough about food allergies in Maryland to take a position on the bill. It is working on an amendment that would require a study before moving forward.
“We don’t even know in Maryland how much of an issue this is,” said Melvin Thompson, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs and public policy.
Thompson said the organization doesn’t know how often restaurants get requests for allergy-safe food.
As many as 15 million people nationwide, 9 million of them adults, have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.
The bill would also require that restaurants put a note in their menus notifying patrons that they should tell their server if they have food allergies — a process that many already go through when they go out to eat.
“We go through this long dissertation every time,” said Jane Shipley, a regular patron at One Dish Cuisine in Maryland, who has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine in a reaction to gluten.
“A lot of times I’ll bring my own noodles and hope for the best,” she said. “But I don’t like to go to other restaurants, no.”
Shipley travels 25 miles to eat at One Dish Cuisine every couple of weeks so she can eat without worrying, since Burke has a color-coded menu that lets her customers know what they can and cannot eat. There is a green circle, for example, on every item of food that is gluten free, which is everything in the entire restaurant.
The legislation also includes a list of requirements that restaurants can meet in order to be considered “food allergy friendly,” including a list of ingredients.
Dr. Shane Hendon, gastroenterologist at Lourdes hospital in Paducah, said celiac disease is a genetic disease, affecting one in 133 people. He said people who suspect they have the disease can be tested. He recommends those with the disease contact a dietitian.
“When you’re talking about celiac disease or lactose intolerance, those are pretty simple in dietary avoidance,” Hendon said. “Mainly the symptoms are cramping, diarrhea and abdominal pain. (With) celiac disease you can get more vitamin difficiency. Finding it, identifying it and avoiding those trigger factors is very important.”
Hendon said it is common and natural for many people to stop tolerating lactose as they get older.
“I tell people, if you think of us as part of the animal population, we’re the only mammals that continue to consume milk beyond infancy,” he said. “Any other animal, after being weaned off the mother, that’s it.”
Matt Jones, general manager at Flamingo Row in Paducah, said the menu contains a disclaimer that all fried items are cooked in peanut oil. Peanuts are a common food allergy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jones said the menu does not indicate which items are gluten-free, although customers ask about that more than any other food allergy. He said the staff is able to assist customers who have concerns about the allergen.
“Most of the servers know about specific menu items that contain gluten,” he said.
Jones said the management has considered updating the menu with food allergy information, but no definitive plans to do so are set.
Matthew Holdman, manager at Backwoods BBQ in Paducah, said the menu does not have specific information about food allergens.
“The list of allergens is so long it would take the length of the Bible to list them,” he said.
Holdman said customers ask about specific allergens or ingredients. The staff, he said, is educated and informs the customers accordingly.
“We know exactly what’s in our products,” he said. “none of our customers have died or gone into anaphylactic shock.”
Bob Hoppmann, owner and manager of The Pasta House in Paducah, said the restaurant’s menu does not contain information about food allergies, but some customers ask about them.
“We do have people who come in asking if our fryer oil is peanut oil, which it is not,” Hoppmann said.
He said he often brings the ingredients in question from food storage to show the customer the label and ingredients.
The restaurant does offer a gluten-free menu which Hoppmann said many customers use. When cooking gluten-free items, the cooks at the restaurants are required to use cooking utensils and cookware that have had no contact with wheat, flour or bread crumbs to prevent cross-contamination.
“We do the gluten-free thing very well and a lot of people thank us for that,” he said.
Hoppmann said he has no plans to add allergy information to The Pasta House’s menu, partially due to the expense of hiring knowledgeable personnel to look through and edit it.
The McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
Call Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter. Call Nicholas Reside, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8667 or follow @NicholasReside on Twitter.