Eating Out with Food Allergies

For a person with food allergies, or really any dietary restrictions, eating out can be challenging.

Recently in the news was the story of a vegan man who is suing Burger King for cooking the newest addition to its menu, the Impossible Burger, on the same grill as the beef burgers.

It seems logical that if you are ordering a vegan burger because you are vegan, you would not want it in contact with other meat and other meat products. However, it can be argued that people who are not vegan also may order the vegan burger and they may have no preference whether their burger is in contact with other animal products.

Some vegans have argued that Burger King should understand the reasoning behind keeping vegan food separate from non-vegan foods and perhaps should have at least made its customers aware of its policy of cooking everything together. It’s practical, of course, to cook everything together. After all, it is a fast food restaurant and the priority of such institutions is making food expeditiously. At Burger King headquarters, it seems that separating the foods was low priority or maybe not considered at all.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Burger King is not alone in this and it reminded me that people with food allergies are at risk when they eat out at many restaurants that do not separate their foods and are not careful about avoiding cross-contamination. It may not be a priority for these establishments; however, it can have serious – and potentially fatal – consequences.

For example, a person with a shellfish allergy may need to be careful of any foods that share the grill or deep fryer with shrimp. So, that person may not only need to avoid shrimp, but may also need to avoid those deep-fried french fries and even those grilled vegetables.

One might wonder if it matters if there’s contact with a food that one is allergic to with a grill or utensil that contacts the food they may ultimately ingest. It depends on how sensitive a person is to a particular food and how much contact there was, and so “maybe”, “probably”, “definitely”, and “no” are all possible answers to the question. From a safety perspective, it is always better to err on the side of caution if uncertainty exists. One’s health is not generally wise to gamble with.

The reality is that when eating out, cross-contamination is almost always a risk, and there are some steps that we can take to try to limit the risks.

1) This first tip is more of a common sense suggestion: If you know you are allergic to a specific type of food, you should avoid restaurants that specialize in it. For example, if you are allergic to shellfish, you should avoid seafood restaurants. Even if they have items on their menu that do not contain shellfish, the risk of cross-contamination is much higher in that setting.

2) Always ask about the restaurant’s policies. Some restaurants are stricter about trying to minimize cross-contamination than others. It also may be dish-specific. They may be able to make accommodations for you if you discuss your concerns with the chef. Calling ahead to discuss your needs with the restaurant can save you time, frustration, and potentially awkward discussions at the table with others present.

3) If there is doubt about whether there is potential cross-contamination, then avoidance is best.

4) Always carry your emergency medication (epinephrine) in the case of any allergic reactions.

Happy eating and remember – safety first!

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