Do Restaurants Have to Provide Food Allergy Warnings?

waiter serving two men at restaurant
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Question: I like to eat out, but I have food allergies. Are restaurants required to list the food allergens in their dishes? Are restaurants covered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food labeling law?

Answer: The short answer is no — for the most part, those of us with food allergies dine out at our own risk. It's still rare to see food allergy warning signs in restaurants (although you know the risk of cross-contamination almost always is there, whether or not there's a warning sign).

There are some exceptions to this eat-at-your-own-risk rule, though, and I outline them below. First, the relevant background information.

Allergen Law Exempts Most Restaurant Food

Congress designed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) to cover packaged food items — the type of food product with an ingredient list that you purchase in a supermarket.

The law does not require retail or food service companies that make food to order to give ingredient lists or allergy warnings to customers.

So when dining out at a restaurant, you shouldn't expect the server or the chef to provide a list of your meal's ingredients, or to warn you about cross-contamination — they're not required to do so (although you can always ask).

Prepackaged Restaurant Food IS Covered

Here's one exception to the law: If the restaurant or food service company makes food and sells it pre-packaged for you to take home, those packages are required to list ingredients with allergy warnings.

You may be able to use this quirk of the law to your advantage to determine if a particular food contains your allergen by checking out the pre-packaged version. But don't just assume the pre-packaged food contains the exact same ingredients as the food made to order. Sometimes recipes differ, or the pre-packaged products for sale are made off-site (or even by another company).

Here's another exception to the law: A grocery store that offers pre-packaged salads in containers for sale is required to list ingredients and give allergy warnings. (On the other hand, a fast-food restaurant that makes you a burger and puts it in a box is not.)

One more exception: Restaurants aren't required to label dishes that contain the gluten protein, which you find in wheat, barley and rye. But if that same restaurant chooses to label a dish "gluten-free," it must adhere to FDA rules on gluten-free labeling.

Allergic Diner Beware in Restaurants

These days, with food allergies in general on the rise, many restaurants (although not all by any means) will make a significant effort to accommodate patrons with food allergies.

I advise calling ahead to make sure you can be accommodated. Also, you should use some common sense: If you're severely allergic to shellfish, for example, you shouldn't assume the local crab shack can handle your request for a completely shellfish-free meal.

That brings up my last point: The biggest danger when eating in restaurants is always the possibility of cross-contamination. To stay safe, always ask to talk to the chef or use a dining card to explain your allergies.

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