When Matt Mitchell was four years old, his parents took him out one night to McDonald’s for a hamburger. But when he bit into it, he tasted cheese. For most people, getting the wrong order is, at worst, a nuisance. But as far as restaurant patrons go, Mitchell isn’t most people. Not long after taking that first bite, his body rebelled.
“I started vomiting, I was covered in hives, it was difficult to breathe,” Mitchell, now 20, says.
He was going through anaphylaxis, an extreme, often life-threatening reaction to an allergen. Mitchell is allergic to dairy, one of eight common ingredients that account for 90 percent of all food allergic reactions. (The others are egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy.) While he did not go to the hospital that night—“probably not a very wise idea in hindsight,” he says—he had to take medicine to avert dire consequences.
Mitchell is one of millions of Americans with food allergies, which are becoming more prevalent and severe nationwide, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN).
While the exact number of those with food allergies was recently questioned in a University of California study by Dr. Marc Riedl (he estimates only about 8 percent of children and less than 5 percent of adults), the challenges these diners pose for restaurants is undoubtedly mounting. In a 2007 study, FAAN found that of the 63 food allergy–related fatalities between 1996 and 2006, half involved restaurants. That statistic, advocates for the food-allergy community say, suggests a lack of awareness in the restaurant industry.
“I’ve gone into restaurants where, based on the dialogue I had with them, I could tell that they really didn’t understand enough to be able to serve us safely, and I’ve had to get up and walk out,” says Lynda Mitchell, Matt’s mother and president of the nonprofit Kids With Food Allergies.
Many restaurants don’t understand the basics of serving customers with food allergies, advocates say. A common mistake is confusing an allergy with an intolerance, which is typically the less severe of the two dietary restrictions.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain the difference between a lactose intolerance and a milk allergy,” Matt Mitchell says. “And the difference is significant.”
Restaurants also don’t often realize that allergy contamination can’t be easily undone. Removing the slice of cheese from a Big Mac, for example, would not make it safe to eat for someone with a dairy allergy.
“It’s molecules that can kill,” says acclaimed chef and restaurateur Ming Tsai, a FAAN spokesman whose son has food allergies. “It doesn’t have to be a handful of peanuts.”