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Allergies and Restaurants

Okay, here's one thats sure to get a few tongues wagging...

I have a deadly peanut allergy, yet I persist in going to restaurants. Yes, I know how much this can rile people who do or have worked in the industry, because I have as well. I understand how one's blood can boil when given a laundry list of special instructions. But I have never refused these requests unless I think it a matter of safety, in which case I try to figure out a solution.

What gets me angry is the restauranteurs (you know who you are) who add notes like "We will not be responsible for food allergies" on their menus. Yes, I get it, you don't want a lawsuit. I'm not expecting you to babysit me. I only tell my server about the peanuts so the kitchen can warn me against items that are too risky, and take a few reasonable precautions. Like not using the dirty pad thai tongs on my Alfredo( Which is something they should be aware of anyway, because dirty utensils are just plain gross). Do your best not to kill me, and nobody gets sued. I'm only asking for common sense.

The majority of restaurants are actually quite accommodating, even happy to do so. Those are the places I'll keep going back to, and direct others to do the same. Others are wonderfully honest about their limitations, and garner my respect, if not immediate business. But you can bet I'll tell my friends how nice they were. Repeat clientele and good reviews by word-of-mouth are far more effective than all the advertising money can buy. Arrogant disclaimers are a review killer.

And as for the old 'well, you should just eat at home' argument, do you really think I should go and live in a plastic bubble? Would you want to live your life confined to your home? Would you have the guts to tell me I don't belong in your establishment if I was blind, instead of allergic?

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  1. I will also die if I consume peanuts or most other nuts. I try to avoid restaurants where I don't speak the language of the people serving me, or places where the food inevitably consists of nuts (for example, I don't eat thai unless I make it at home). Chinese, for instance, I am fairly cautious with, and only dine with people who speak the native language and have confirmed with owners ahead of time.

    Most restaurants are accommodating, but the less money you spend, the more you tend to get, "We can't guarantee..." which, to me, is not only a legal cop-out (which doesn't really work; if you die at a restaurant because of a food allergy, the waitress telling you that they can't guarantee it is not a waiver for liability), but a cop-out as to the cleanliness of the product and the kitchen. The same goes for the rash of "may contain traces of..." products that have popped up over the last 10 or so years. If you can't say that your factory lines are clean of the last product you made, how can I be assured that they aren't also full of whatever else was in the last product, or dirt, or worse.

    "Can't guarantee" means that I, and the rest of my table, will probably leave. I've had some slip ups at restaurants (serving a biscotti filled with almonds at the end of the meal with an espresso), but these are easily avoided.

    The only really bad time I've had so far was a recently opened restaurant with an obviously clueless waitress. I have never reviewed it on Chowhound because my review would likely be improperly negative because of it. I told them of the allergy on reservation, told the waitress upon arrival, and half way through the meal she told me that the food I ate might have peanuts in it. I was pretty scared that I was going to die, but I know the time limit associated with it, so we kind of waited for a bodily response rather than jab myself with the epipen right away and call 911. We waited, and nothing, but it completely ruined both my meal and that of my companions (and, needless to say, we will not be going there again, nor will anyone I talk to about it).

    In Japan, or China, people don't seem to believe in food allergies. Thankfully, in Japan at least, nuts aren't really a common ingredient, and any restaurant likely to serve them (other than, say, pastry shops) are probably able to substitute something else. I've had no problems there as well.

    I've had people say, "Well, if you can't risk it, don't eat out," but that doesn't really make sense to me. I don't eat at places where the menu is obviously hazardous regarding nuts. I also won't eat at places that can't guarantee their food to be nut-free (and I ask at reservation). Even products you consume at home which are "nut-free" might have nuts in them (take, for instance, Cadbury Mini-Eggs featuring hazelnuts not noted on the label and later recalled, to all the good it might have done for someone eating the product), so what should I do, eat nothing except foods that I grow myself on my balcony?

    Thankfully, I haven't died yet, and hopefully I won't. Hopefully you won't either.

    1. I was at a restaurant where they take allergyes very seriousely.. The client told the waiter ahe was allergic to nuts, the waiter told the food expiditer, the expiditer told the kitchen, the kitchen cooked a version of the dish without nuts, (someone else at the table was having the same dish with nuts) .. the kitchen told the food expiditer which dish was which... the expiditer gave the dishes to teh food runner, the food runner made a mistake and placed the wrong dish in front of the wrong person.. it happens millions of times in restaurants but this time because it was the same dish no one noticed and immeditely after one bite the lady had a reaction.. luckily she just had put the fork to her tongue and did not have a full reaction but she had too leave..

      Is the restaurant at fault? legally probably yes if the lady had died they would probably been sued but they did everything they could (except replacing the food runners with robots :-) it was a mistake the runner felt horrible but it was probably the 100th dish he ran that day and no single person is perfect. The same could happen in the kitchen if a busboy cut his peanut butter sandwhich and did not scrub the penut oil from the cutting board or if while grabbing something a loose nut gets knocked into a pot on the stove.. kitchens are hectic places and have hundreds of ingredients. It can be the cleanest "Ramsey" kitchen and mistakes are still made (or you would never get a bad meal!). For every dish that goes out under seasoned or over cooked or cold there is probably another where it has contacted something that could cause an allergic reaction in someone...

      But all reputable places will try their hardest to comply to allergy requests (and religious restrictions) without putting a disclaimer on the menu. I am assming the disclaimers are in places where either they are a chain and have too many lawyers on their backs or are places that have had issues in the past.

      Find places that accomadate you , reward them with your patronage but still becarefull with each bite..

      1 Reply
      1. re: OnDaGo

        That was all very well-put, OnDaGo!

      2. I do empathize with you; if you have had an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts, your feelings of frustration and fear are justified.

        Having said that ( and noting I am neither an attorney nor a food industry employee), the reality, IMO, is that you DO take more of a risk eating in a restaurant than you do at home. Only you can determine the risk you are willing to take. It is probably lower in a high end or owner/chef operated restaurant; but the risk is never zero.

        As far as "living in a bubble" or judging it takes "guts" to tell you that [you] "don't belong in [my] establishment;" I can see where this is also borne of your frustration, as is the gratuitous blind person analogy. Nonetheless, a serious peanut allergy is a type of disability and although a restaurant should take your problem seriously; the most honest answer is that it can't make your risk zero. It can do its best, but the ultimate responsibility is yours, not the restaurants. And it might take guts to say it.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Sinicle

          i get the feeling of people pissed off at me if i tell them i have an allergy to a certain food a restaurant may serve. anyone else run into this problem?

          1. re: Sinicle

            "although a restaurant should take your problem seriously; the most honest answer is that it can't make your risk zero. It can do its best, but the ultimate responsibility is yours, not the restaurants."

            I am glad you wrote that, that perfectly sums up how I felt when I was working in restaurants.

            I was very aware of the seriousness of allergies. But honestly, sometimes I felt like "one false move and someone dies!" was an awful lot of pressure to be under while making lunch. I can wash my hands, clean my area, check all my ingredients, and still be worried that a crumb from something I prepped earlier in the day is stuck to my clothes.

            I worked for awhile in a corporate setting where one of our regular customers was deathly allergic to peanuts. We made sure to let her know when we were making a peanut dish as an entree, in case she wanted to avoid the dining room all together that day. But since we had peanuts in the kitchen there was no way to be 100% sure that anything we made was posivitely peanut-free. It's not a matter of being clueless in the kitchen as how much can we do, short of turning the kitchen into a clean room?

          2. Having been in your position with regard to big-time, major food allergies, I can empathize. (I'm no longer allergic to any foods. Ta-DAH!) It was truly frightening to sit down in a, say, Chinese dim-sum place and try to explain that I simply could not eat any dish that had shrimp in it. "No, no shrimp - pork dumplings," I'd be assured. Still, I made my husband take the first bite and, sure enough, those tiny, dried shrimps would be in amongst the fillings. I finally realized that they aren't really considered shrimp, but are more like a seasoning or condiment - completely different from shrimp dumplings. So we stopped going to those kinds of restaurants.

            Even places with the best of intentions occasionally screwed things up. Years ago, we became sort-of regulars at a small country inn in Ludlow, VT. The chef-owner knew what my allergies were and always made sure to substitute something for me when others were having something that I couldn't. But she didn't make breakfast - her husband did. One morning, as I was just raising a spoonful of hot cereal to my lips, I heard her scream my name as she burst from the kitchen, "Don't eat that!" He'd put cinnamon (big on my list) in the hot cereal and forgot to make a small batch without.

            Other times, despite everyone's best efforts, mistakes happen. We were at the same inn with another couple - one of whom had that very same deadly nut allergy that afflicts you. Nuts, fortunately, were not a problem for me. So dinner came and the main course was cornish hen with chestnut stuffing. The kitchen had made a separate one for my allergic friend, which was lovely for her, so she didn't have to feel left out, eating a hunk of chicken breast. She obviously couldn't taste ours, but offered around tastes of hers, which she was raving about. Naturally, I took a taste and, within moments, my eyes and palms began to itch, I broke out in hives, and my throat started to swell. My husband ran upstairs and got me some benadryl. Eventually, the symptoms eased, but I ended up half-asleep at the table (I'd been drinking wine up to that point - great cocktail: Bordeaux & Benadryl...) Turns out that our friend's cornish hen had oysters in the stuffing. Oops.

            So I agree that, while you can ask all the questions in the world, and get every assurance from management, staff and kitchen, things happen and it's a scary world out there. No plastic bubble though - I just had to learn to assert myself and then cross my fingers. Nobody ever had the nerve to say to me that I shouldn't eat out.

            By the way, chef Marcus Samuelson had a severe allergic reaction to something when he was a child. His staff has been fully educated as to the lurking dangers and trained to ask questions of diners and to accommodate them - no attitude included.

            14 Replies
            1. re: Deenso

              Deenso, not to hijack this thread but how did you rid yourself of your shellfish allergy? I developed my shellfish allergy only a few years back and I would try anything (well almost anything) to be able to eat shrimp, crab, and lobster again.

              TIA

              1. re: KTinNYC

                It's not a recommended method, KT: I had 6 months of chemo for lymphoma. That stuff killed pretty much everything in my system so, after my treatment was completed (successfully!), I asked my doctor to do a test for the few foods that I had had to avoid for 25 years. Lo and behold! the tests were all negative. I must have eaten shrimp and salmon five times in the next week. And my very first cinnabon! Which, I must say, was pretty nasty. Stuck to cinnamon raisin swirl toast after that...

                Anyway, you probably don't want to go there. ;-)

                1. re: Deenso

                  Talk about a silver lining! I hope you are all better now and have a shrimp for me.

                  1. re: Deenso

                    Is this a common event? I know chemo can change tastes, but I've never heard of changing allergies.

                    1. re: TampaAurora

                      My gen'l practitioner was surprised when my allergy tests came back negative and so was my oncologist, so I'm guessing it's not a common event. I can't imagine, though, that I'm the only person to have considered the possibilities. I've been in remission for 18 months now, and my allergies haven't returned.

                      It's possible that, since they came on fairly abruptly when I was in my mid-30s, they might have simply disappeared the same way and it was jus,t coincidentally, during the time I was in chemo. Whatever the reason, I'm just thrilled not have to question anybody at a restaurant anymore and to be able to eat everything they put in front of me without a worry!

                      1. re: Deenso

                        I haven't heard of a case before you but it is theoretically possible as chemo destroys your immune system. An allergic response happens when your body mistakenly recognizes the food allergen (whether it's peanuts, wheat, eggs, etc.) to be harmful and unleashes an immune response to attack it.

                        Well, I'm definitely glad to hear that you made it through your chemo and you're able to eat cinnamon and shrimp now!

                        1. re: Deenso

                          Oh, now I must get tested again for my shellfish allergy. Wouldn't that be a silver-lining to those 6 months I gave to my hospital? Or, maybe I will try a few clams off of my husband's plate with an epi pen nearby.

                          1. re: smtucker

                            I'd recommend the blood test, rather than the "maybe I'll just try one of these" test. But, however you decide to do it, please do report back!

                    2. re: KTinNYC

                      I always thought one was born with an allergy. Last year I had strange symptoms after consuming cat fish, ever since then almost all river fish make me really sick and now any fish all together. It's so strange and I just want to eat some fish!!

                      1. re: BamiaWruz

                        many people acquire (and sometimes loose) allergies during their lives. not at all uncommon.

                        1. re: KaimukiMan

                          Yep, "grew into" my peanut and tree nut allergy around age 18.

                          1. re: enbell

                            developed nut and venom allergies at 48.

                        2. re: BamiaWruz

                          Developed all my food allergies when I was in my mid-thirties. Go figure.

                          1. re: BamiaWruz

                            Unfortunately, many acquire allergies later in life. My wife grew up eating oysters. In middle-age, suddenly she developed her allergy to any bi-valves, oysters, clams, scallops, etc. Now, she can eat single-shelled mollusks, like abalone and limets, but if there are two shells - she's gonna' have problems. Crabs, shrimp, lobsters, squid are all fine. It's just anything with two-shells.

                            Hunt

                      2. As somebody with a deadly food allergy, I don't have a problem with restaurants that have notes like "We will not be responsible for food allergies." A restaurant can try to accommodate a customer's requests as best as possible but mistakes can happen as in OnDaGo's or Deenso's story. If you're allergic to peanuts, there could have been an ingredient processed in a plant that also manufactures peanuts. Perhaps the restaurant always gets this ingredient from a certain vendor that is guaranteed peanut-free. But let's say the vendor just happened to be out of that ingredient this week and the restaurant had to make a substitution and the waitstaff is unaware of this information. There are countless scenarios that could happen. I take these disclaimers to be similar to those medical disclaimers you've got to sign when you go to a doctor or get a massage.

                        There's always a risk when eating out if you have an allergy. But there are risks in everything -- ie. I could slip in the shower and crack my skull open when taking a shower. You just have to do the best you can doing your research, informing the waitstaff of your allergies, carrying your Epi-Pen, etc.