Food Allergies Challenge Restaurant Industry in Connecticut

Georgie's Diner, Guilford (Courtesy of Nico Anthis)


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For State Representative Robin Comey (D-Branford), food allergies have become a fact of everyday life.

“My son has food allergies. He has had them since he was about 16 months old. It’s what I’ve been advocating for, for years, and one reason I ran for office,” Comey said.

From the time her son was diagnosed, Comey explained, eating out became increasingly difficult and stressful. Restaurant chains, like Starbucks or Panera Bread, typically note when eight of the most common allergens appear on menus, and have standard practices to keep likely allergens separate and prevent cross-contamination. Smaller, local, one-of-a-kind places, are unpredictable. Some have completely separate allergen-free workspaces and some have no idea what type of oil they are using.  

“I’m not saying that everyone needs to have a separate kitchen, but … when I communicate that we have food allergies at the table, and my server can say, ‘these are the things you should be wary about,’ it is reassuring. Let us, as the customer, make the decision,” Comey said. “There is a certain amount of personal responsibility for folks with food allergies. You carry your epi-pen, and you communicate to the restaurant, and hope that they communicate back exactly what they have in place.”

Comey said, the problem is when a restaurant does not provide information, or the information is inaccurate.

“As a food-allergy family, you become extremely loyal to businesses, especially when it comes to restaurants,” Comey said. “You want to feel safe and the waitstaff to be confident.”

Proposed legislation

Unlike neighboring states, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, Connecticut, does not require food allergy training for food service workers.

Food Safety bills were drafted in the state legislature’s Public Health Committee, in both 2018 and 2019, but failed to pass.

In 2018, more than 250 residents submitted testimony to the Public Health Committee in support of the legislation.

“It was almost over the finish line in 2018, but then one member of the Public Health Committee threw himself out, in the name of responsibilities for restaurant owners,” Comey said. “We definitely don’t want to put additional burdens on businesses, but we see that restaurants in other states have actually benefited from these changes.”

According to the Connecticut Restaurant Association, which represents more than 600 restaurants in the state, the required ServSafe course for restaurant managers already includes a chapter on food allergies, and while not all employees are required to complete this course, all managers at food establishments in the state are.

“The Connecticut Restaurant Association believes the current Department of Public Health regulations are sufficient and will continue to help ensure public safety while also educating restaurant employees on the dangers of food allergies,” according to testimony at the state hearing in 2018.

In 2019, State Representative Joe de la Cruz (D-Groton) sponsored the legislation. He explained that he had been contacted by a constituent whose entire family suffers from allergies.

“I thought it was a win-win bill for consumers and restaurants,” de la Cruz said. “If you’re a restaurant that’s right down the street from a family like my constituent’s, allergy training could be a boon.”

The legislation was eventually narrowed in committee to focus on steps to raise awareness, like a poster about allergies, but did not specify training for restaurant staff. That bill died in committee.

“The agreement that they ended up making with the Connecticut Restaurant Association was a poster,” Comey said. “Posters don’t save lives, people save lives. I think we can do more. I think there should be training in the front of house and the back of house. Im certainly not giving up.”

Neither de la Cruz nor Comey expressed confidence that there will be time to pass a bill in the coming session. Both said that vaccinations are likely to be the major topic of discussion in the Public Health Committee.

“It’s a shorter session and there are already a lot of other things on the table,” de la Cruz said.

At the federal level

In March, at the Biennial Conference for Food Protection, the Food Allergy Committee is proposing two additions to food safety regulations on the federal level: increased allergy training for all restaurant staff and better disclosure of allergens in food, said Michael Pascucilla, the co-chair of the committee and the health director for East Shore District Health Department in Connecticut.

“The United States is a little behind, well a lot behind, Europe when it comes to allergies,” said Pascucilla, who took a sabbatical in the United Kingdom in 2016 to study food allergies. “I presented my data at the food protection conference in 2018 and recommended changing some of the laws regarding food allergies. The FDA wasn’t ready to change the food code, but agreed to put together a committee to study the possibility and make recommendations.”

The recommendations have the full support of the committee which includes members of local, state and federal government, as well as industry leaders. The recommendations, if accepted by the conference attendees and the Food and Drug Administration, would mandate the changes sought by Comey and de la Cruz, but on the federal level.

“Several states have gone ahead on their own and made these changes, but not Connecticut,” Pascucilla said. “If any bill comes up in this session, I will certainly be supporting it.”

A restaurant perspective

For restaurant owners, food allergies have been a growing issue over the last decade, and some have already spent time and money to invest in training and allergy-friendly menus.

“It’s been about 12 years now we’ve been noticing them. It was kind of an annoyance for us at first, people saying they couldn’t have certain things. Restaurant people have never heard that before,” said Nico Anthis, the owner of Georgie’s Diner in Guilford. “But, we realized it was going to get bigger and bigger and we determined if we were going to evolve as a restaurant, we needed to understand it.”

Anthis spent a full month analyzing every ingredient on his 180-entree menu to make allergy-friendly substitutions as well as to update the menu to note when a dish contains any of the eight most common allergens: wheat, eggs, fish, milk, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and soy.

“We tried to train our staff to guide guests to make a decision that works for them and enjoy their meals, but it’s an ongoing process,” Anthis said.

He has worked with his team to reconfigure the kitchen and invested in new equipment in order to prevent cross-contamination.

“We aren’t full-proof. We make mistakes and we have to live up to our mistakes and apologize and explain to the guests and be transparent,” Anthis said. “But it’s challenging, all kinds of stuff can go wrong.”

Anthis said that for Georgie’s Diner the changes were a worthwhile investment, but he understood that additional requirements would add to difficulties already facing many restaurants.

“The restaurant industry is suffering. There is a deficit of 1 million food service workers nationally, many vacant positions and no qualified people to fill them,” Anthis said. “If you’re already struggling because you can’t find the staff, then it makes even harder to do these initiatives.”

Despite this, Anthis believes that restaurants must change with the times, if they expect to remain in business.

“I imagine it will be difficult for most places, but it is important,” he said. “You’re either going to do it or you’ll lose patrons, it will be painful either way.”