Food Allergies may be a Disability
There was a recent ruling by the Department of Justice that drew little attention, but seems to pose potential challenges for the restaurant industry in the future. In a recent settlement with Lesley University, the DOJ clarified confusion on how the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to food-allergic customers stating that severe food allergies can be considered a disability under the law.
The DOJ published materials went on to state that the ADA does not require all restaurants to provide gluten-free or allergen-free foods, but the Lesley University settlement leaves schools, restaurants, and other places that serve food more exposed to legal challenges if they fail to honor requests for accommodations by people with food allergies.
The DOJ indicated the ADA might require restaurants to take "reasonable steps" in order to accommodate people with celiac disease and other food allergies, as long as the accommodation doesn't result in a “fundamental alteration” of the restaurant’s operation.
For example, it said the ADA may require restaurants to answer questions about menu ingredients and omit or substitute certain ingredients upon request if the restaurant normally does this for other guests. But, a restaurant would not be required to "alter its menu or provide different foods to meet particular dietary needs." However, a restaurant could be liable if it blatantly ignored a customer’s request for certain foods and that person became ill, though that case might be a challenge in court.
The settlement with Lesley University, reached last month but drawing little attention, will require the Cambridge institution to serve gluten-free foods and make other accommodations for students who have celiac disease. At least one student had complained to the federal government after the school would not exempt that student from a meal plan even though the student couldn’t eat the food. Under the agreement, Lesley University says it will not only provide gluten-free options in its dining hall, but also allow students to pre-order, provide a dedicated space for storage and preparation to avoid contamination, train staff about food allergies, and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to affected students. The agreement says that food allergies may constitute a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, if they are severe enough. The definition was made possible under 2009 amendments to the disability law that concerned episodic impairments that substantially limit activity.
This settlement seems to establish a precedent that restaurants will need to follow in order to protect their guests and their brand.