ANNAPOLIS As a food allergy sufferer, Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, D-Baltimore, knows all too well the risks of eating out.
Three years ago, while on a business dinner, Marriott asked a waiter three times if the stuffed chicken contained any seafood. He told her no. Within minutes of eating the chicken stuffed with crabmeat, Marriott suffered from shortness of breath and was rushed to the emergency room of Anne Arundel Medical Center.
“It was the first time I was hospitalized for (food allergies),” recalled Marriott, who is allergic to shellfish. “This kind of thing happens all the time (to diners), but shouldn’t.”
The potential danger of food allergies has caught the attention of Delegate Joan Stern, D-Montgomery, who has introduced a bill to require restaurants to provide customers with a written list of foods containing eight specified allergens and two additives.
The allergens are peanuts, other nuts (including pecans and walnuts), shellfish, milk, soy, eggs and wheat. The additives are monosodium glutamate and sulfites. Marriott and 29 other delegates have co-sponsored the bill.
“People with serious food allergies shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are going to get sick or die from going to a restaurant,” Stern said.
But opponents of the bill say it’s an unrealistic solution to a very complex problem.
“On the surface, this bill seems very simple to comply with,” said Brendan Flanagan, a lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland. “The fact is, it will be very difficult to provide restaurant customers with any assurance that the food they are eating will not get them sick.”
Flanagan contends that menus as well as ingredients in food dishes change almost every day for many restaurants. Plus, suppliers and manufacturers often don’t list all the ingredients for oils, sauces or spices they send to restaurants.
“We’re being obligated to give written assurance on something we can’t really give customers an assurance on,” he said. “Legislation is not the answer for…such a deep complex issue.”
The best voluntary solution, Flanagan said, is for the lines of communication to be open between the food allergy sufferer and senior staff who know what foods will best suit the customer’s needs. Many Maryland restaurants are already following this practice, he added.
Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the Virginia-based Food Allergy Network, an organization dedicated to promoting education and public awareness of food allergies, is not surprised by the restaurant’s industry opposition to the bill. The introduction of the bill comes in the midst of growing debate about food safety and restaurant responsibility, she said.
The ultimate decision of what to eat lies with the customer, Munoz-Furlong said, but more needs to be done on the part of the restaurant to ensure safety.
“This bill is a good first step,” she said. The legislation is “asking that restaurant staff be educated on what’s in the food and how it was prepared because what they don’t know can seriously affect a person’s life.”
About 5.2 million Americans, or 1 to 2 percent, suffer from food allergies, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. There are about 125 deaths and 2,500 visits to emergency rooms every year as a result of food allergies.
The only way to prevent reactions to food allergens is for sufferers to avoid those foods as best as possible, said Dr. Glenn Silver, a practicing allergist in Columbia.
Another opponent of the bill is the Glutamate Association, which contends that MSG is a safe food ingredient that causes adverse reactions in only a small subset of the population. The association, according to its lobbyist Martin J. Hahn, wants MSG, a flavor enhancer, taken off the bill.
But Jack Samuels, who is MSG sensitive and president of Truth in Labeling, a Chicago-based MSG awareness group, disagrees.
“About 65 million people suffer adverse reactions to MSG in food today. This is not a minor problem. The restaurant industry also needs to realize there are countless people throughout the country who don’t go to restaurants out of fear they will have an MSG reaction,” he said.
Colleen Mansbach, co-founder of the Maryland Food Allergy and Asthma Network, said she “applauds any effort to highlight” the issue. Mansbach, whose daughter suffers from peanut allergies, said that in addition to ingredient awareness, people need to be educated about cross contamination in restaurant kitchens.
The bill will come before the House Environmental Matters Committee March 17. Stern is hopeful the bill will be supported.
“I think it’s a very simple thing,” Stern said. “We’re asking for something that will take a couple of minutes to write down and save lives.”
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