The chain, owned by Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, has begun testing a menu that lists major allergens such as dairy products, wheat, peanuts, eggs — and, of course, different types of seafood — in its dishes.
"After recently disclosing nutritional information for every item on all of our menus, the allergen menu is a natural next step in our commitment to transparency and our belief that guests benefit from access to information about what's on our menu," spokesman Mark Jaronski said in an e-mail.
At Red Lobster in Sanford, diners with food allergies can get a printed-out chart that notes the major allergens in its dishes. The information also points out items at risk for cross-contamination through frying or grilling.
Dishes that don't ordinarily contain a particular allergen such as eggs or shellfish, for example, can become contaminated if they are fried in the same oil or grilled on the same surface as something that contains those ingredients.
Darden has not made information widely available about allergens at its restaurants, which also include Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze and Capital Grille.
Allergen information is not available on its Web sites. Diners must rely on asking restaurant staff or on contacting the chains' guest-relations departments. Customers can get a full list of ingredients through guest relations, but those departments have limited hours, and it can take several hours or even until the next day to get the information.
Staci Baker of Orlando, whose teenage daughter has to avoid wheat and other gluten sources because of celiac disease, said Red Lobster servers have generally given good answers about ingredients. But having printed information, she said, would be "almost like having a little security blanket."
Other restaurants provide varying degrees of information. Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q, based in Maitland, provides a list of foods with major allergens online and has printed information for guests in restaurants. Panera Bread has offered booklets of printed allergen information — and of all ingredients — for menu items in its stores.
Eight types of foods are considered the major allergens, which account for 90 percent of food allergies.
Allergies to foods — which can cause everything from rashes to hives to fatal anaphylactic shock — have become a big issue for restaurants. More than 12 million Americans — 4 percent of the population — have allergies to ingredients such as wheat, soy, eggs and dairy, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. Though not technically a food allergy, celiac disease — an intolerance to gluten — has been an issue, as well.
Lists of major allergens in restaurants are "becoming more mainstream," said Sloane Miller, a nationally recognized food-allergy consultant. "This is actually the direction that most restaurants will be going in."
Restaurants also must train employees about the danger of food allergies and keep ingredients separated whenever possible, she said.
Darden, she said, appears to be making a good first step.
"I think it should be applauded," she said. "This is the beginning of what's going to be a surge. I think we're just going to see more and more and more of this because of demand."