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A government watchdog organization on Thursday warned about the new menu police that could soon sweep the nation – and the legal liabilities that could be presented to food service operations from public schools to college cafeterias and others.
Under the resolution of a dispute that involved Lesley University in Massachusetts, according to a report from officials at the Washington watchdog Judicial Watch, food allergies have to be treated as a disability, and provisions made to accommodate those with that “disability.”
According to a settlement document cited by Judicial Watch, “Food allergies may constitute a disability under the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. .. Individuals with food allergies may have an autoimmune response to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma and anaphylaxis.”
Commented Judicial Watch, “Sounds pretty dramatic, but the food industry is now fearful of the widespread consequences of this decree. In fact, it leaves all facilities that serve food – schools and restaurants – exposed to legal challenges if they don’t accommodate people with food allergies.”
That was when the Justice Department announced its agreement with Lesley, providing that “students with celiac disease and other food allergies can fully and equally enjoy the university’s meal plan and food services.”
The plan required the college to “continually provide ready-made hot and cold gluten- and allergen-free food options in its dining hall food lines.”
The school also was required to “provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare gluten-free and allergen-free foods and to avoid cross-contamination.”
There were several other requirements as well.
“By implementing this agreement, Lesley University will ensure students with celiac disease and other food allergies can obtain safe and nutritional food options,” said Thomas E. Perez, who then was assistant attorney general for the U.S. Civil Rights Division.
“The agreement ensures that Lesley’s meal program is attentive to the schedules and demands of college students with food allergies, an issue colleges and universities across the country need to consider.”
“The DOJ … [said] the ADA does not require all restaurants to provide gluten-free or allergen-free foods, but the Lesley University settlement leaves schools, restaurants, and other places that serve food more exposed to legal challenges if they fail to honor requests for accommodations by people with food allergies,” said the industry site ABCR.com.
Judicial Watch, which issued its warning Thursday about the potential liability, noted the Department of Justice has concluded that some students at Lesley could not “fully and equally enjoy the privileges, advantages and accommodations of its food service and meal plan system.”
The conclusion came as the federal bureaucracy pressured the college that specializes in education, writing and fine arts programs into changing its menu by alleging the school violated Title III of the ADA.
“Reading between the lines this means the federal government will make sure colleges and universities across the country cater to students with food allergies. A food research group wrote on its online publication that the ‘quiet DOJ ruling may have a big impact on the restaurant industry’ as well,” according to Judicial Watch.