As the number of Americans with food allergies and/or vegetarian diets increases, fast-food and casual restaurants are providing consumers with more information about their dishes than ever before, using special menus and signs to keep the diet-conscious population informed.
After being sued for failing to disclose the presence of chicken powder in its non-meat menu items, Panda Express now has signs up explaining that they don’t offer vegetarian options, as Chipotle is now also being forthright about the presence of pork in their pinto beans. Wendy’s has a gluten-free menu and Dunkin Donuts is promoting kosher meals at some of it’s US locations. PF Chang’s is taking things a bit further, offering special menus that accommodate consumers with 11 common food allergies and for vegetarians.
While these new options and disclosures seem like responsible or noble actions on the part of food businesses, they are actually a savvy way of attracting customers that are believed to have a bit more disposable income to spend on dining out. “If you can demonstrate to families that you can offer them a safe meal, you establish a tremendous sense of loyalty and create repeat customers,” said Chris Weiss, a vice president at the nonprofit Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.
Eating out has been a challenge for many consumers with food allergies or dietary restrictions. French fries and meatless burgers are often times prepared in the same oil as meat items (or even fried in lard!) and knives that touch animal products may be used for vegetarian items. While peanut content is typically disclosed because nut allergies are so deadly, gluten and soy allergies have only recently been addressed extensively by mass food retailers.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts have been successful in passing legislation requiring restaurants to post signs disclosing allergy triggers in restaurant foods and other states are expected to follow suit.