Gluten-Free: What You Knead to Know

Jennifer Faubion is an attorney with Cairncross & Hempelmann specializing in helping employers navigate employment issues both preemptively and through litigation. Jennifer regularly advises business owners on issues related to state and federal laws and often writes about employment issues affecting the hospitality industry.

The following is Jennifer’s first installment in a two-part series.  Click here for part two.  

Gluten-Free Part I The DOJ/Lesley University Settlement  

In December of 2012, the Department of Justice and Lesley University reached a settlement in response to complaints from students against mandatory participation in the school’s meal plan.  The students requested accommodations for gluten-free diet requirements due to severe gluten allergies and celiac disease.  In its response, the Department of Justice determined that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies for those with dietary restrictions required by severe allergies.  Lesley University will pay compensatory damages, make gluten-free and allergen-free food available in its meal plans, and will create a separate space for preparing such food to avoid cross-contamination.

People who suffer from gluten allergies have reactions to gluten present in barley, rye or wheat, and though its symptoms (such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating and skin rash) can be very uncomfortable, they are not life threatening.  Celiac disease, on the other hand, is an auto-immune disorder affecting 1 in 141 Americans, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA).  When gluten is consumed by someone with celiac disease, the villi in the small intestine are damaged.  Damaged villi decrease the surface area needed to adequately absorb basic nutrients and the disease can be chronic and life threatening if left untreated.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008

Pushing the boundaries of what has traditionally been considered a disability, such as a classification for those suffering from severe food allergies, is now not only possible, but increasingly likely.  The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 included in its definition of a disability, “An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.”  Interested parties have watched to see how far this definition could stretch—it now appears that it could include food allergies and similar auto-immune deficiencies related to food.   The Department of Justice’s decision sets precedent in the areas of food preparation and food sensitivities. Though the Lesley University dispute involved students with celiac disease being compelled to participate in an on-campus food program that did not offer them appropriate food options, many wonder if it is only a matter of time before other institutions, or even restaurants, become vulnerable to legal action if they cannot accommodate all their patrons’ dietary needs.

In our next installment, we will focus on why restaurant owners should pay attention to the current gluten-free trend.   In the meantime, if you have questions concerning this post or other hospitality issues, please contact Jennifer Faubion.