MN Hospitality Advocate

Industry Prepares to Fight Allergen Ordinance

Posted in City Council, Restaurant Issues, Uncategorized by hospitalityminnesota on October 5, 2009

Early this past summer, St. Paul City Council member Melvin Carter had a very unfortunate experience with a clerk at a retail establishment in St. Paul while trying to find out whether the popcorn sold there was popped in peanut oil. Council Member Carter has a daughter who suffers from a severe allergy to peanuts.

Ultimately, he found that the product was produced with peanut oil, and thus did not purchase it for his daughter. But this frustrating experience led him to the conclusion that “there ought to be a law.”

Approximately 2% of the adult population and up to 8% of the youth population suffer from food allergies. There are eight common allergens as well as other food products that can affect customers.

Councilmember Carter Drafts an Ordinance
As a result of his experience, Council member Carter drafted an ordinance and then brought together a task force of affected groups and individuals including the Minnesota Restaurant Association, suppliers, parents of kids with allergies, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, health inspectors and the FDA. The Restaurant Association and Chamber then brought together a broad coalition of related industry groups to work with the Council member and seek a solution.

We talked at length during meetings about the complexities of the restaurant industry supply chain. We talked further about the fast pace in an industry kitchen and the difficulty of insuring that a product is not cross contaminated in any way residue from an allergen. We talked about the importance of parent and personal responsibility. And we talked at length about the litigious society in which we live and the increased liability risk that occurs with mandates in this area. We talked a great deal about creating a false sense of security for customers and agreed that the most important conversation is that which can occur between the owner or chef and the consumer. Finally, we suggested that St. Paul does not want to make itself an island and that any initiatives in this area should be statewide.

Industry Proposes Extensive Voluntary Effort
Instead of industry mandates, we proposed an extensive industry awareness campaign, not only in St. Paul, but statewide. We agreed to bring together a powerful and committed coalition of industry players and to engage energetically in the effort. We felt that this, combined with education provided to consumers, would be the most effective and appropriate way to address the issues that this portion of the population faces.

The initial efforts toward an industry awareness campaign are included in this packet. These reflect just a beginning, as we are willing to do even more on a voluntary basis. We believe that awareness and education are the keys to addressing this issue. We further believe that industry should be provided the opportunity to do so on a voluntary basis before mandates are issued.

We Cannot Reach Agreement
The task force and industry meetings occurred with Councilmember Carter some seven or eight times. We thank Councilmember Carter for listening to our industry, and regret that he remains convinced a city mandate is necessary. It is not every day that in industry as large as ours (third largest employer behind government and health care) comes to the table willingly, engages productively in the conversation and commits to a voluntary effort of the magnitude we have proposed.

It certainly seems appropriate to give the industry a chance to show what it can do prior to mandates being issued. This is a basic tenet of our philosophy – that government regulation ought to be applied sparingly, when necessary and when a broad swath of the public is affected. In this time of severe economic challenge, to add mandates, which add costs and increase liability risks, and to do so in one community thereby making it less attractive for one of the major job creators in the state, does not seem prudent.

While Council member Carter morphed his original proposal into several iterations, the key issues remain. Chief among these is a liability risk that our legal counsel firmly believes increases once a city mandate is issued.  This is echoed by one of the major insurance companies that writes nearly 20% of its business in the restaurant market nationwide, including Minnesota.

In the end, we have agreed to disagree. We stand by our pledge to initiate an energetic and sincere industry effort voluntarily. But we do not believe it is in the best interests of the City of St. Paul, patrons with allergies or St. Paul’s restaurants to pass mandates in this arena.

Restaurants Are Already Addressing this Issue
It should also be noted that restaurant operators respond to requests from customers on a daily basis regarding allergens and a wide range of dietary needs. The industry is already moving toward greater awareness here. Some restaurants have recognized those with allergens as a powerful market and are catering specifically to it. Examples include Davanni’s, Pizza Luce and Heartland Cafe.

We are contacting St. Paul city councilors to share our position on this issue and hope we can convince them of our sincerity with regard to a voluntary program, and the challenges and damage a city ordinance will cause.

David Siegel, CAE, IOM
Minnesota Restaurant, Lodging and Resort & Campground Associations


One Response

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  1. Amal Koppang said, on March 2, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Great post. How long have you been running this blog for? It makes me realize that I need to improve mine a lot! Amal Koppang

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