Food & Recipes

You May Be Violating Federal Law And Not Even Know It

Most restaurants aren’t aware of the Federal ADA regulations on food consumption, and what you don’t know can cost you.

Were you aware that those with food allergies or food intolerance are now covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? If you are serving food and are open to the public, you are required by law to accommodate the needs of those with the covered food issues, whether it means special accommodations in food prep or making substitutions as requested. Failure to do so could actually lead to a lawsuit.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 broadened what falls under the term “disability” to include all things that affect “major life activities.” There are many disabilities that aren’t apparent, yet still have an impact on “major life activities.” Due to the change in interpretation, the ADA now covers eating and bodily functions affected by eating (i.e. digestion). And let’s be honest, being able to eat is definitely a major life activity.

Odds are you’ve not yet heard about this change in law because there hasn’t been any real incident that would bring attention to it. For the most part, people with food allergies and issues know where they can and cannot eat and take this responsibility upon themselves. But what about when they are in a group where the decision may not be up to them? This is when a restaurant has to know what to do.

Tracy Stuckrath, President of Thrive! Meetings & Events, is a person with a unique set of food allergies. She turned her personal frustration into a service where she helps hotels, event planners and food service personnel better meet the needs of those with allergies. “I was invited to an event where the food being served was off of a set menu,” said Tracy. “Unfortunately I was allergic to many of the foods listed. I contacted the chef ahead of time, and he was able to accommodate my dietary needs.” As someone in the events industry, she understands how difficult it can sometimes be to accommodate allergies and understands the frustration if this is dropped in a chef’s lap last minute. “Some of these issues just can’t be accommodated on a whim, depending on the severity of the allergy,” she said. “It’s best to contact a restaurant or event location in advance. Most are more than willing to help.” She also recommends having an “Allergy Card” with a list of your allergies and what you cannot have and the safe alternatives. Tracy says that when she gives her card to the cooks, they appreciate it because it makes their jobs that much easier.

However, some see assisting those with food allergies as a thorn in their side and have the opinion “If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.” It’s not a matter of liking food. For some, it’s literally a matter of life or death. But even if an allergy isn’t that severe, by turning someone away, you lose potential revenue. If a group arrives at your restaurant, and you aren’t willing to accommodate one person’s allergy, odds are that entire group will go somewhere else both this time and for any other get-togethers. You’ve just forfeited quite a bit of money. This can actually be a customer experience opportunity. If you are helpful and supportive through the accommodation process, that can generate plenty of good will (and potentially a great deal of future business).

Were you aware of these ADA regulations prior to this article? We’d love to hear your feedback and if this has impacted your business.

  Discuss This Article

Comments: 6

  • I had no idea about this and have been to quite a few places that would not accommodate my gluten intolerance. Very challenging to eat out for my business meetings.

  • I had no idea about this, but have only once experienced a problem with being gluten intolerant with a restaurant not wanting to accommodate us. My husband, myself, and my dad are all gluten intolerant. I’ve learned when I have a problem to just ask for the manager and then they are more than willing to accommodate for us. We ask to substitute fruit for the toast and get an ommelette that doesn’t come with pancakes. However, I never knew they were required by law to allow accommodations, until now.

  • I was not aware of this. Its great information to have. The food service industry has such a huge array of laws that affect them. I work on the bookkeeping side. It’s amazing how many restaurants have no idea that there is a tip credit available to them. I just helped a 40EE restaurant find 21K that they were leaving on the table.

  • What if an employer provides free lunch for the entire company, but refuses to get a meal that one employee with a food allergy can eat? Is that discrimination?

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