Restaurants Beware! Gluten-Free Not Just a Trend

Last week, attorney  Jennifer Faubion, a member of Cairncross & Hempelmann’s Litigation group, provided the first installment in her two-part series on the current trend in food service to offer gluten-free menu items, and the legal issues most often associated with that.  This week, Jennifer offers her second installment.

Gluten-Free Part II Implications for Restaurants Considering Going Gluten-Free

For the time being, restaurants are not required to provide gluten or other allergen-free menus to diners with food sensitivities.  The advantage of offering gluten-free options, however, is clear:  The NPD Group’s Dieting Monitor, which tracks dieting and nutrition-related issues facing consumers, reports that 200 million restaurant visits in the past year included consumers placing gluten- or wheat-free orders. They also report that up to 30% of American adults say they would like to eliminate or reduce gluten from their diets.  Add to that the estimate that 83% of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.  With those kinds of numbers, it does not appear the gluten-free trend is going away any time soon.

Restaurants should make themselves aware of proper preparation, storage, and cooking techniques if they intend to cater successfully to such a crowd.  The slightest trace of gluten can trigger a celiac episode, so the need for truly gluten-free products is important.  The Maryland Legislature, recognizing the need for education and information on food preparation in relation to food allergies and related topics, recently passed House Bill 9, which establishes a Maryland Task Force to Study Food Allergy Awareness, Food Safety, and Food Service Facility Letter Grading.  House Bill 9 also will require food establishments to display a poster relating to food preparation and food allergies.  Is it only a matter of time before more states adopt similar requirements?

If You Say It’s Gluten-Free, It Really Needs to be Gluten-Free

Domino’s Pizza was the first national food chain to offer a certified gluten-free pizza.  But the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) did not approve the pizza, as it is prepared in the same kitchen as Domino’s regular pizzas.  The pizzas come with a disclaimer that they may not be fit for consumption by those who suffer from celiac disease.  In a more comprehensive approach, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts worked with a nutritionist for a year to create a training program for preparing food within their kitchens for special diets.  They offer items on their menus for diabetics and for those following heart-healthy diets, as well as for those following vegan, raw, macrobiotic, and gluten-free diets.  The Chuck E. Cheese chain has dealt successfully with the issue by ordering gluten-free products like pre-packaged pizza and cupcakes from gluten-free vendors.  The gluten-free pizza they offer is cooked in a bag and brought to the table with the bag still sealed, with a gluten-free pizza cutter provided on the side.

Though these two posts have focused on gluten, be aware that other food allergies, such as nut, egg, and dairy allergies, are also on the rise among consumers.  Given the high demand for gluten-free food, and the increasingly high incidence of other food sensitivities, food allergies and celiac disease in the consumer population, it is safe to say restaurant owners and food handlers should begin to examine their protocol for preparing such foods.  As recent legislation indicates, such processes may soon be mandated, and we should anticipate a number of legal issues in this area.

If you have any questions on this post or on other hospitality issues, please contact Jennifer Faubion.