Monday, June 9, 2008

Tracking Ingredients in Restaurant Foods

As some readers may already know, my wife suffers from a rare illness (idiopathic anaphylaxis). Without going into a detailed discussion of her illness, the best way to describe it is to say that it often behaves as a severe allergy (even though it is not actually an allergy) that can cause her to go into anaphylactic shock. Many of her triggers (but not all) are food related. Thus, one of the places that my wife encounters a fair amount of difficulty dealing with her illness is in restaurants.

It is not uncommon for her to read the menu at a restaurant to find which dishes she thinks she can safely eat. She usually quizzes the server about certain ingredients that frequently find their way into dishes, even if not listed on the menu (garlic and black pepper being the best examples). When she explains that she has an "allergy" the servers usually ask what she is allergic to; her usual response is to say that she is allergic to way too many things to list, and ask, instead, to be told what is in the dish.

Nevertheless, way too often, a dish will be served that includes ingredients that weren't listed on the menu or were supposed to be omitted from her dish (parsley being the worst example of the latter problem; it seems as if many chefs cannot possibly fathom serving their dishes without parsley even if the order ticket says "no parsley"). So, many times my wife will only discover a problematic ingredient in a dish after eating several bites or, when she is lucky, when the dish is served, but before she's eaten any. In either case, she has to stop eating. Sometimes she sends the dish back (but by then, it is often too late to get a new dish as she doesn't want to make the rest of the dinner party wait on her); other times, she just puts her fork down and claims not to be hungry any more (mostly, I think, so as not to go through the trouble or to avoid making a scene when we're out with acquaintances). For my part, I'm tired of watching my wife have to quiz clueless servers, send back ill-prepared dishes or dishes with "hidden" ingredients, and watch me eat while she has a dinner of bread.

I understand that not ever server in every restaurant can be an expert on every ingredient in every dish. And, I understand that it may be difficult for many restaurants to accommodate certain types of food allergies. But there are some accommodations that simply shouldn't be that hard.

Thus, I've been thinking about drafting a bill that I will ask a member of the Indiana General Assembly to propose next year. The bill would simply require restaurants to maintain a list of ingredients in each dish. The list would not need to indicate how much of any particular ingredient was included or how the ingredient was prepared (in order to avoid concerns about giving away recipes). But, if a diner were to ask about the ingredients in a dish, the restaurant would be required to have the information available. And this could be done very simply, perhaps just a printed index card with the list of ingredients. I'm still thinking about some of the details of what I would like to see in a bill like this. For example, perhaps "daily specials" could be omitted from the bill so that a chef could "play around" each day without having to list ingredients in new dishes. Or, perhaps, the bill should exclude certain types of restaurants (fast food? mall kiosk?). And how much detail is reasonable to expect (e.g., too many packaged foods simply list "spices" as an ingredient; well which spices would those be?).

My purpose is to make life easier for diners with allergies (especially parents of children with severe food allergies, even more so than people like my wife), not to make life difficult for restaurants. But if packaged food sold in a store can list ingredients, I don't see why restaurants cannot do so as well.

I'm curious to know if any other jurisdictions have a requirement like that which I'm suggesting. And I'm soliciting ideas for this kind of legislation. Do you have thoughts on what should or should not be included in a bill of this sort? I'd really like to be able to think through the potential objections that the restaurant industry may raise (beyond the obvious "we just don't want to take the time or incur the expense" argument) so that I can try to craft a proposed bill that addresses any legitimate concerns in advance.

Is this a good idea? Am I on the right track? Would you ask your legislator to vote for a bill like this? Let me know what you think.

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