Proposal to raise food allergy awareness a cost-dependent concern for restaurateurs

The front door displays a sign indicating that the establishment has peanuts on the premises at the Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Severna Park on Thursday morning.

Restaurants could soon be required to better accommodate customers with food allergies, under legislation that passed the state Senate earlier this week.

The Senate voted 33-14 this week to require restaurants statewide to encourage customers to notify servers about their food allergies.

The bill also would authorize counties to require restaurants to have someone on the staff trained in food allergy awareness.

A similar bill is pending in the House committee. The House version, instead of leaving the decision up to counties, would require restaurants across Maryland to have a staff member trained in food allergy awareness.

Elin Jones, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County Health Department, said the county would wait until the bill is enacted to decide whether it would make restaurants require an employee go through food allergy training.

Food allergy awareness advocates say some restaurants don't properly inform customers of risks. But some in the restaurant industry are worried the legislation could be burdensome.

Stan Fletcher, one of two owners at Stan and Joe's Saloon in Edgewater and Annapolis, said he supports food allergy awareness. But he said restaurateurs already are under financial stress, and the General Assembly is considering legislation to hike the minimum wage.

"It would be (a burden) if there's a cost to it," said Fletcher, who has been in the business for 30 years.

"Obviously, it's a concern because they keep loading things up that make it tougher and tougher and tougher. But at the same time, if it's the smartest thing to do ... I've been in the business a long time and I find people are aware generally when they go out. If they have specific concerns, they ask," he said.

Some businesses such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries have warnings posted at their restaurants. Five Guys provides customers complimentary peanuts in their shells.

On its website, the national chain says peanuts have become part of its identity and though many people have peanut allergies, they "don't want to disappoint our peanut eating guests." Five guys has signage on its doors and in its restaurants noting its serves peanuts in bulk containers.

Its policy is to deny customers from taking peanuts out of the restaurant "to limit the risk of someone unknowingly coming into contact with peanuts."

New responsibilities

Currently, the county's Health Department is supposed to make sure the storage, preparation and handling of food at local restaurants is up to code to prevent the risk of food-borne illness, Jones said.

The department has no responsibility for the handling of food allergies.

Legislation enacted last year required the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to develop a poster about food allergies by Jan. 1, and required establishments to display those posters prominently.

The county Health Department included the link to the poster in its food service license renewal packets and in follow-up letters that went out for the annual Feb. 28 renewal deadline, Jones said.

The poster includes pictures of food, instructions to avoid cross-contamination and in bold red lettering states "when a guest informs you that someone in their party has a food allergy, follow the four R's." The four R's -- refer, review, remember, respond -- are explained with additional instructions.

But this year's legislation would take food allergy awareness a step further.

To satisfy the bill's requirements for better accommodations, restaurants would have servers ask about food allergies before taking orders, or restaurants would have to post an advisory on the menu, asking customers with allergies to notify their servers.

That's not a problem, Fletcher said.

"I think the awareness is probably a good thing, having people be aware of what you're serving is probably a good thing," he said. "It makes it easier decision making for the consumer and it enables a safer environment."

But beginning March 1, if passed, the bill also would allow counties like Anne Arundel to require food establishments have an employee on the premises who has completed a food allergen awareness training course and passed an accredited test approved by the DHMH.

Jones said the county has not made a decision as to whether it would require its restaurants to do so. Jones said the county would wait for direction from the state, if the bill passed, to decide how to better handle food allergies.

The Department of Legislative Service's fiscal note for the original legislation that mandated someone on staff be trained said local food establishments may incur a cost in training employees.

"Since a qualified employee must be available at all times to discuss meal options with customers that have food allergies, small businesses will likely have to pay for training and testing for several employees," the fiscal note reads, labeling the fiscal impact locally as "potentially meaningful."

Worthy investment

But John Lehr, CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education, a McLean, Va.-based nonprofit advocacy group, said it would be worth the money.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island have passed similar legislation and the food allergy community has been enthusiastic about duplicating that awareness in other states, Lehr said.

"Customers with food allergies are at high risk for serious reactions in restaurants where they are putting their trust in people who may not fully understand food allergies," Lehr said. "Consequently many of them do not eat out -- depriving the restaurant industry of an estimated $45 billion in lost revenue annually."

The Senate version of the legislation, introduced by Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, would not apply to service stations or vendors at carnivals and fairs.

Senate Bill 409 is scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday in the House Health and Government Operations Committee.

If the bill can pass the House in the same form by the end of the General Assembly's 90-day session on April 7, it will head to Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk for his signature.