A lot of people in both Minneapolis and St. Paul have beenwatching as those of us in the St. Paul hospitality industry have been workingtoward defeating a proposal by St. Paul City Council Person Melvin Carter IIIthat would, among other things, require all restaurants and caterers tomaintain and provide for their guests upon demand an allergen handbook listingall of the ingredients in each and every dish they serve.
Some weeks back, I blogged about this and about how such an ordinance wouldinevitably drive our restaurant, Heartland, from the environs of St. Paul. I also gave an interview on that topic toPatrick Reusse for his KSTP AM radio show. Soon thereafter, I received anemail from Council Person Carter requesting a meeting. We had thatmeeting at Heartland last Tuesday. Here's what transpired.
It took about half an hour for Melvin and me to clear the air. Apparently, he had not received all of the feedback I had sent regarding theinitial draft of his bill as well as the feedback on subsequent drafts. Ihad been receiving the drafts from an intermediary and returning my comments tothat intermediary. Unbeknown to me, he never received thatfeedback. Consequently, we were both of the erroneous opinion that wewere ignoring one another. After clearing up that misunderstanding, wewere able to move on in the spirit of cooperation and compromise.
Let me start by saying, that Melvin Carter is very nice person who, if taken atface value, is trying to do nothing more than address what he considers to be apotential health hazard. Our point of contention centered on how bestthat could be achieved. It was around this time in our discussion that wewere joined by Molly Grove of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. Mollydidn't have much to offer the discussion except to caution Melvin about whatkind of resistance he could anticipate from her membership should he putforward another proposal.
As our conversation progressed, I found him to be quite receptive tounderstanding how restaurants of Heartland's ilk operate and how his proposalwould stifle our ability to succeed in St. Paul whileactually making people less safe. He expressed that his intentionwas not to do so. In addition, it rapidly became clear to him that anallergen handbook such as the one he put forth in his most recent draft was notthe best way to address his concerns. Much like menu labeling of caloriecounts or nutritional data on food packaging, the information contained in sucha handbook is pretty much useless unless someone is educated enough to put thatinformation to good use. Furthermore, listing a bunch of ingredients in ahandbook does nothing to alleviate the problem at its source. In otherwords, it makes more sense to educate and train those involved in thepreparation of food as well as those who have allergies or who have loved oneswith allergies as to the potential risks and pitfalls associated with allergencontamination. Why not attempt to stop the problem at its source ratherthan creating an ineffective band aid that would likely succeed in doingnothing more than handcuff thriving businesses? Consequently, it tookMelvin about forty five minutes to declare that the idea of an allergenhandbook is off the table. The discussion then turned to what steps canthe industry voluntarily take to help ensure that people who suffer from foodallergies not be fed an offending ingredient and what role, if any, cangovernment play in assisting us in that endeavor.
First of all, let me just say that when I first wrote about this three weeksago it created quite a firestorm within our industry as well as in the chambersof St. Paul City Hall. Some of those who read my blog decided to post commentseither in support of or in opposition to what I had to say. Some of thosecomments were quite insightful while others were less so.
Just for the record, to the best of my knowledge Council Member Dave Thunenever supported the bill. Those who suggested that he did are obviouslyupset with him for other bills he has supported, but I am sorry to disappointyou on this occasion. Furthermore, to those people who seem to besuffering from either extreme paranoia or a seemingly total lack of knowledgeabout how a restaurant works as well as how servers get paid for their labor Ican tell you with absolute confidence that no one in his or her right mindwishes for anyone to be harmed, let alone killed, by the food one consumes inan eating establishment. Ownership does not want to suffer the liabilitythat would accompany any sort of behavior that could be construed as grosslynegligent, and restaurant servers do not work on commission. A server hasno motivation to knowingly lie to an individual about an ingredient in order tomake a sale especially given the fact that patrons appreciate being redirectedto something else or, as is the case at Heartland, a preparation can usually bealtered to eliminate whatever allergens are in question. My guess is thatin doing so the server would likely garner a more appreciative gratuity. So I implore you to please not disparage those who work so hard to entertainyou when you are dining out. While they are quite capable of makingmistakes, calling for them to be prosecuted or worse for having done so seemslike a bit of an overreaction.
So getting back to Melvin and me, I suggested that most restaurateurs probablywouldn't object to adding a statement on their menus reminding their guests toalert their servers of any dietary concerns or constraints. Servers thusinformed could then go to the kitchen and convey that information so that thepatron could be better served. That will not only go a long way towardprotecting the customer, but it will also create a more well informed waitstaff.
Melvin liked both of those ideas especially when he was enlightened as to theprocedures we engage in at Heartland. He suggested that restaurants andcaterers have an action plan similar to what we do. That's where it getsa little tricky. Obviously, a fast food restaurant does not operate in the sameway that a restaurant such as Heartland does. I am very connected to thesources of my ingredients, and I can pretty much track our food chain rightback to the origins of almost every item we use. Our action plan whendealing with special diets is pretty straight forward and extremelyeffective. Restaurants that do not have the benefit of that kind oftransparency could find it very difficult to follow the same procedures wedo. Legislating some sort of mandate requiring them to do so would beunreasonable while solving nothing. It would be much better to allowrestaurants to form their own action plans and create their own policies inresponse to people with allergy concerns based upon the requirements of each business. So how do we do it?
I believe that education is the key to creating a safer environment for peoplewho suffer from life threatening allergies. I would bet that the majorityof people who cook or serve food in Minnesotadon't realize that vegetable oil almost always contains at least some peanutoil. I would also contend that the vast majority of the general populationdoesn't know that hydrolyzed vegetable protein is, in fact, monosodiumglutamate. As long as a compound is less than ninety nine percent MSG, itcan legally be labeled as hydrolyzed protein. That's the Food&Drug Administrationat work on your behalf. That's not my fault or the fault of anyone elsein our industry. If you have a problem with it, I suggest you take upwith the federal government. In the meantime, it would be best if we all tooksome steps toward educating ourselves about what it is that we are eating.
For the industry, this is a relative simple if somewhat cumbersome thing toachieve. The FDA has a uniform food code that all states are free tofollow in whole or in part. For instance, here in Minnesotawe don't require the use of plastic gloves when handling food since weunderstand that educating people about proper hand washing is a much moreeffective and safer way to prevent food contamination. Consequently, the Minnesotafood code differs from that of the federal code. Adopting such a code isa function of the state legislature.
It seems to me that we could ask our state legislature to add a provision tothe food code that would expand the educational requirements concerning foodallergens and the risks involved with them that could be added to the FoodManager Certification Class that is already required by state law. Thecost of doing so would be minimal, and the benefits would be profound.
But what about the general public? How might they become bettereducated? First of all, one has to be responsible and motivated enough toseek out the information. There is no getting away from an individual'spersonal responsibility when it comes to things like this. Melvin hastold me that he believes in that basic principle. So what role shouldgovernment have in helping people do so? That's a tricky one. Isuggested to Melvin that the city could provide a pamphlet containing pertinentand important information about the subject of food allergens that could bemade available upon request to all residents. While there might be somecost involved in doing such a thing, it would be a fraction of what it wouldtake to mandate some sort of mandatory compliance procedures that would requireinspections and enforcement. Not only that, it would go much farthertoward achieving Melvin's intended goal; that is, to make the general publicsafer.
All of these things are the types of solutions that go to the source of aproblem instead trying to catch up with it somewhere downstream when it mightalready be too late. And, bonus! They save money, too, whilenot crippling a vibrant industry.
Finally, I want to thank Melvin Carter publicly for taking the time to meetwith me personally and to listen to my concerns. By removing hisintention to mandate an allergen handbook, he has made it possible forHeartland to remain in St. Paul. Now all we have to do over the next seven months is decide where the bestlocation for our restaurant might be. We have a little bit of time tofigure that out. I will continue to keep you posted as we continue thatprocess.