Safe for All Eaters: A Breakthrough


Photo by Anthony Tieuli/WGBH

Massachusetts is famous for setting a lead. Be it gay marriage or the smoking ban in restaurants, the state has always worked at the cutting edge of politics, and it's no different with food allergies. Last Wednesday, the state's Department of Public Health kicked allergy awareness into high gear when it proposed a set of regulations to implement the Food Allergy Awareness law for restaurants (S. 2701), which passed in Massachusetts last July. I helped draft and lobby for the new law, and now seeing it come to fruition is very fulfilling.

And it's not going to stop here. I think this will go national. The federal government will get involved, just as they're doing with calories and trans-fats. It's something that everyone's got to take seriously. The time is now.

This isn't rocket science. It's just about warning people that allergens can kill.

We've been doing this at my restaurant, Blue Ginger, for 12 years. We have always trained our staff not only on the proper handling of food but also on food allergy safety and how to avoid cross-contamination. After my infant son, David, was diagnosed with seven of the eight major allergens that make up about 95 percent of American food allergies—soy, wheat, dairy, shellfish, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs—I really found my calling, and I became a national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). When I went to a Massachusetts restaurant with David when he was about five years old, I spoke to a manager to tell him about my son's allergies, which I always did. He said, "We'd rather not serve you." We left, and my son said, "How come? Did we do something wrong?" That really got me fired up.

Everybody should have the right to be able to eat safely in any restaurant. Going back in history, it used to be that if you had a certain color of skin, you couldn't go into certain restaurants, then it was if you were a handicapped person you couldn't go in, and now if you have allergies, you can't. That's why the Massachusetts template for regulation is so important.

The state's new rules have four parts: three of them are mandated, and one is optional. First, there has to be a blurb on every menu that asks customers, "Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy. In addition to promoting safety, this only makes it easier for restaurants to service customers. We'd much rather know about allergies in advance. It becomes a service nightmare when you have to redo a whole meal.

The second requirement is a poster displayed in the kitchen, kind of a cheat sheet, to educate the staff about the eight most common allergens. The one that gets the most publicity of course is peanuts, because it causes anaphylaxis, but other allergens can too. The poster lists the do's and don'ts of how to behave in an emergency, but also the dos and don'ts of the kitchen, which are all about cross-contamination. That's what causes most mistakes. The analogy I like to use is chicken. If you cut raw chicken on a cutting board, what do you do? Wash the board, the knife and anything that else that touched the chicken thoroughly with soap and water. In restaurants, you have to do that with everything. If you fry shrimp in the fryer and you also make your French fries in that fryer, you have to think about cross-contamination in that fryer. Your grill, your tongs, your steamers—all of those you have to think about. So that's really what the poster is: a reminder to constantly be on alert, in Spanish and in English.

The third part is a video that I just helped redo, which we edited to make all the salient points about food allergies. Someone in every restaurant in Massachusetts has to be certified through a program called ServSafe, which teaches about food-borne illnesses and how to prevent them, and we're adding the allergy video to this training.

The fourth point is optional, but I encourage everyone to go see the public service announcement we put out; you can find it here. I've developed a three-ring binder with a spreadsheet for keeping track of allergens. Any restaurant cook can go to, download the sheet, and fill one out for every dish in his or her restaurant. It breaks down each dish by component—fish, meat, starch one, starch two, sauce one, sauce two, and so on—so you can see at a glance what allergens a given dish contains and which allergen is in which component. If a customer has a soy allergy, you can quickly and accurately see that soy is only in sauce two and the garnish, because the garnish was fried and cross-contaminated with soy. So the customer can have the dish if you remove those two components.

This isn't rocket science. It's just about warning people that allergens can kill. The good news is that once word gets out that you're an allergy-friendly restaurant, you will get an increase in business, and you will never have a more loyal clientele. At Blue Ginger we see 10 to 15 allergy tables per night. They come because they know they'll eat a tasty meal at a great price—but most importantly, they'll also eat safely.

I will say it to my grave: every restaurant in this country must know what's in its food. Why? Because you can be putting someone's life at risk. I can't think of anything more serious. It is our duty to be safe. That's why it's nice to know that I've helped make a difference, and why it's great to see Massachusetts taking the lead.