Ask the County Law Librarian – Food Allergies and Restaurants

Q. My wife and I recently discovered that our one-year-old daughter has several food allergies, including peanuts, dairy, eggs, and peas. Are there any laws in California that require restaurants to indicate any of these ingredients on their menus, if they are not immediately obvious from the nature of the dish?


A. Good question, and one that is applicable to a growing number of parents and children each year. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), “food allergies affect as many as 15 million Americans, and the prevalence is increasing among children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergy causes more than 300,000 ambulatory care visits each year involving children under 18.” FAAN, a non-profit organization, specializes in promoting public awareness, advocacy and education, and research on behalf of all those affected by food allergies and anaphylaxis.

In recent years food allergy awareness and advocacy has grown, and several states have enacted laws that govern how schools and camps should safely manage children with food allergies. Restaurants, however, are a different story and the subtopic that we’ll be discussing here. If you’d like to find out more on how state laws apply to food allergies in schools, camps, and other institutions, I suggest visiting your local public law library for research assistance. To find the public law library nearest you, go to

For the most part, state legislators and their respective state restaurant associations have not been able to come to any conclusive agreements on the role restaurants could or should play in regard to food allergy safety. However, in 2011 Massachusetts enacted the Food Allergy Awareness Act, requiring, among other things, restaurants to display a food allergy awareness poster (developed by FAAN) in the staff area and include a notice on menus and menu boards that reads "Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy." In addition, as of February 1, 2011, restaurants in Massachusetts will have to have on staff a certified food protection manager who has been issued a Massachusetts certificate of allergen awareness training through a training program recognized by the MDPH. To read more about these requirements, visit the online Massachusetts Department Health and Human Services.

Currently, California has not passed any statutes or regulations that require restaurants to publish dish ingredients or warn customers about possible allergens, though restaurants can, and frequently do, include warnings of their volition.

California law does, however, require every foodservice establishment to have at least one employee who holds Food Protection Manager Certification, which must be renewed every five years (California Health and Safety Code §113947). If the California certification test is modeled after the nationally-accredited food safety certification from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), it will include information on food allergies and the prevention of incidences. To find out more about the California Food Protection Manager Certification, contact the California Restaurant Association (CRA). The CRA also makes available online resources for accommodating guests with food allergies, including the FAAN’s guide “Welcoming Guests with Food Allergies.”

Ultimately, it is up to the individual, or caretakers of the individual, to advocate food-allergy safety when dining in any restaurant or food establishment, regardless of locale. The following are web sites that offer advice for restaurant diners with food allergies:

Kids with Food Allergies

SuperMarketGuru’s Food Allergy Buddy

FAAN’s Tips for Managing Food Allergies: Dining Out

 Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday’s column. Even if your question isn’t selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.

Coral Henning, Director
@coralh & @saclawlibrarian


  • Please consider using the largest and fastest-growing guide to allergy-friendly dining in the U.S. – AllergyEats. It an be found at or on our free smartphone app. Based on the same concept as Yelp – food-allergic diners rate their actual restaurant experiences for the benefit of other food-allergic diners considering where to dine out.

  • Bill Albertson

    I cannot have gluten or dairy. After years of attempting to eat out safely, I have given up trying to eat anywhere that is not a dedicated facility (which are very rare). It is impossible to guarantee any ingredient will not be present in a mixed use prep facility (almost all eateries). There are too many factors that will impact an average kitchen’s ability to guarantee a dish is prepared safely:

    1. Ingredient provenance- Most restaurants buy goods from common providers. Many packaging lines do not test between different ingredients being used on them. Additionally, various ground ingredients can easily aerosolize (anything powdered, including milk, peas, etc) and contaminate an entire facility. I have a very good idea to which PPM I am sensitive to what makes me sick, but unless you know that the packager and preparer of the ingredients is testing for (if they ever test at all, most never do), then there can be no guarantee of safety.

    2. The distributor can also contaminate the items as well, depending upon how they are packaged. If a powdered item breaks, or if a worker has handled raw ingredient contaminants and then handled the goods that need to be pure, contamination can occur. It doesn’t happen often at this stage, but it can happen.

    3. The restaurant can cross-contaminate if the ingredients are present in the kitchen. This is where most meal contamination happens. It could be a spoon, a poorly trained staff member, or debris from a mixer falling into a mix. And that is if they take the time to actually train their staff- most don’t, or don’t do it well. Of all of the restaurants that offer “specially prepared menu items” in all of Sacramento, there are exactly TWO I can eat at that have NEVER gotten me sick. None of those are chains. Both of those are dedicated facilities that ensure the provenance of their ingredients.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat out, but after my experiences I am very cautious about where I dine. I am giving my own perspective on this issue from having to live with my own condition and travel for business. I have tried chains where they “guarantee” to do their best to serve safe food. I got sick. I’ve tried small restaurants who said they would look out for my health, only to find that they had very different ideas of food safety than I did. The only kind of place I’ve been able to dine regularly and safely are those that never offers the ingredients I have an issue with.

    PS- same goes for food I buy in stores. I think of it as “restaurant food prepared elsewhere”.

    • Bill Albertson

      Another thing is that there is NO REQUIRED PPM (parts per million) threshold in the US for “allergen contamination” according to the FDA or USDA. People can mark items dairy or gluten free without regard to whether they did strict checking or not. A good resource for allergen food safety in Sac is the Gluten Free Specialty Store (J near 26th), as the staff there does check the entire provenance of the food they stock, including handling contamination and labeling recalls (most stores NEVER do this). Ask for Melanie, the store owner, who probably has the most experience regarding this.

  • There are other states that also have created their own food allergy laws in restaurants and if the food industry as a whole, be it restauranteurs, food manufacturers or schools any person responsible for delivering food to people needs to clearly know and understand what food allergies and food intolerances are as well as the catagories of food allergies. Example- Eggs are not considered Dairy and Peanuts are not Treenuts and FIsh is not Shellfish- all of these are seperate allergen catagories that I have to constantly explain in the food industry every time I go out to eat. We are not doing a good enough job educating our society about food, but it’s one of those things we continue to put in our bodies every single day that could greatly impact us. We have to stick together on this and advocate for more laws if the food industry doesn’t want to do it on their own.


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