ELLICOTT CITY – Maureen Burke marks every item on her menu with a color-coded stamp that identifies potential allergens, and her kitchen is divided into two parts, real cheese and fake cheese. She special orders the rice flour for her restaurant, One Dish Cuisine, from Oregon.
While many restaurants have two ovens, hers has four — the better to keep the dairy and soy away from the rest.
Burke opened the restaurant because of her own allergy to gluten, and she is a walking-Google of hidden allergen knowledge. She keeps a master notebook of all ingredients in every item of food, logs each loaf of bread that she sells and changes her gloves after touching anything.
Burke does not eat out. After all, not everyone has color-coded stamps.
She is doing with her restaurant what a bill in both the House and Senate would ask all Maryland restaurants to do: Understand food allergies.
“It’s an education bill,” said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, who is sponsoring the food allergy awareness bill in the House.
If passed, the bill would require restaurants to designate a “person in charge” who would watch an approved video educating them on food allergies. When patrons with food allergies enter a restaurant, they could ask to speak to the person in charge and find out what on the menu they could eat.
Restaurants would also be required to put a sign in the kitchen that explained the dangers of cross-contamination. Even if the food does not contain cheese, for example, the chef might have touched cheese before making it, and the patron might still experience an allergic reaction.
But the Maryland Restaurant Association said it doesn’t know enough about food allergies in Maryland to take a position on the bill. It is working on an amendment that would require a study before moving forward.
“We don’t even know in Maryland how much of an issue this is,” said Melvin Thompson, the Maryland Restaurant Association’s senior vice president of government affairs and public policy.
We don’t know how often restaurants get requests for allergy-safe food, Thompson said.
As many as 15 million people, 9 million of them adults, have food allergies nationwide, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, and numbers are on the rise.
A similar Massachusetts law is what inspired one Maryland resident, Marianne Quinn, whose son is allergic to eggs, to lobby for the bill in Maryland.
On a family vacation to Cape Cod, Quinn and her son were surprised to find that restaurants were more aware of her son’s allergy and were able to accommodate them.
“I would say every person we encountered at a restaurant understood food allergies,” Quinn told the House Health and Government Operations Committee in January.
Her fifth-grade son Quinn also testified about his enlightening trip to Massachusetts.
“Let me tell you, it was awesome,” he said. “It made me feel normal.”
The bill would also require that restaurants put a note in their menus notifying patrons that they should tell their server if they have food allergies–a process that many already go through when they go out to eat.
“We go through this long dissertation every time,” said Jane Shipley, a regular patron at One Dish Cuisine, who has celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine in a reaction to gluten.
“A lot of times I’ll bring my own noodles and hope for the best,” she said. “But I don’t like to go to other restaurants, no.”
Shipley travels 25 miles to eat at One Dish Cuisine every couple of weeks so she can eat without worrying, since Burke has a color-coded menu that lets her customers know what they can and cannot eat. There is a green circle, for example, on every item of food that is gluten free, which is everything in the entire restaurant.
Burke also has celiac disease, and has tailored her recipes over the years to accommodate her allergies without losing flavor.
She started selling her food wholesale to local hospitals and health food stores a few years ago, and four months ago opened her restaurant.
Yet to take home a paycheck, she does it because it’s rewarding.
The legislation, which will be heard in the Senate Thursday, also includes a list of requirements that restaurants can meet in order to be considered “food allergy friendly.” One of these would be keeping a list of ingredients–a process that Burke said can be very challenging, but it is her niche.
Ingredients might change, and suppliers might change them without notifying restaurants, she said.
And even with a bill like this, many might still be afraid to eat out–because even the smallest amount of an allergen can be deadly.