Restaurant Owners and Food Allergies
Chef Ming Tsai remembers ordering a sandwich without bread for his then-3-year-old son David because the toddler was allergic to seven of the eight most common food allergens. Tsai approached the restaurant manager, a man in a suit and tie standing off to the side.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘We’d rather not serve him,'” Tsai said, adding that waiters and restaurant managers used to roll their eyes when he mentioned David’s food allergies. “Don’t open a restaurant if you don’t know what’s in your food. This is absurd.”
From that day on, Tsai made it his mission to promote allergy awareness. He developed an allergy safety system in his restaurant, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass. He became the spokesman for the nonprofit Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FARE). He worked with the Massachusetts state legislature for five years on an allergy safety bill.
David went into anaphylactic shock during Tsai’s father-in-law’s 70th birthday, Tsai said. He was in the kitchen preparing roast tenderloin for 80 guests when the babysitter accidentally gave 5-year-old David whole milk instead of rice milk.
“David comes down and says, ‘My throat is itchy, and it’s tightening up,'” Tsai said. “You could tell in his eyes that he’s not overreacting here.”
David’s breathing became labored, and Tsai’s wife, a nurse, sprang to action and jammed an EpiPen in David’s leg.
“That was the most horrible scream I ever heard in my life,” he said. “My body still tingles from that scream.”
“My first reaction was that’s a really unfunny joke from upstairs,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to cook for my kid. That was my dream.”
Eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat make up 90 percent of food allergies, according to a 2008 CDC report that found an 18 percent rise in children diagnosed with food allergies between 1997 and 2007.
As David grew up, Tsai said it was especially hard to visit restaurants, something he loved to do as a kid. As allergies and allergy awareness have become more prevalent, he said people’s attitudes have shifted. He usually serves between 6 and 10 tables a night with some kind of food allergy, and he’s happy to do it.
As you can tell by the story of Chef Tsai, food allergies have become all too common in society today. With the increase in food allergies among people, especially in children, parents are becoming more educated and becoming proactive on the issue at hand. People like Chef Tsai are even becoming advocates for food allergies. This being said, this is why Chef Tsai put a solid effort into becoming an advocate for food allergies and pushed for this bill to be passed.
This is why, in my opinion, more restaurants in America should take a role in nutrition education. If more restaurants would identify food allergens on their menus, both in-house and out-of-house, this could potentially save children from hospitals visits, parents from stress and worry, and healthcare costs across the country.
This being said, the WVU Human Nutrition & Foods is currently working on a food allergens project with a restaurant in the Morgantown, WV area. We were approached by the restaurant, Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, to identify their food allergens on their menu. The restaurant is owned and operated by the College of Business and Economics at WVU and was donated by a B&E alumni who not only promotes entrepreneurship but, also promotes fresh hospitality. This alumni’s company, called Fresh Hospitality, is joining the HN&F department and proactively making positive changes to address food allergens.
Hopefully, other restaurants and chains will see companies like Fresh Hospitality, making conscious efforts on their menus to address nutrition issues, like food allergies, and make changes themselves. When other restaurants begin to catch on to these healthy trends that the rest of American restaurants are beginning to adopt, WVU’s HN&F department will be here to help out every way we can!