Imagine the awesome responsibility one has when undertaking catering to thousands of people with different health conditions and diverse vulnerabilities to some food constituents. Take for example gluten allergy which affects millions of people when they consume wheat based food preparations or for that matter those consuming peanuts containing products with allergy for the same. There are many consumers with some GI tract disorders who will have to depend on restrictive diets for their very survival. Naturally to serve to their requirements, without really knowing their problems is next to impossible. How many caterers are aware of such dietary restrictions with which people live with? Can they be held accountable if some mishaps occur when such consumers get sick after consuming food preparations served by them?. These are questions with far reaching implications. A recent report about a canteen in a University refusing to serve special foods to students with such disabilities became an issue of serious concern all around. Here is the gist of this episode from which public catering organizations have to learn a lesson.
"The settlement with Lesley University, reached last month but drawing little attention, will require the Cambridge institution to serve gluten-free foods and make other accommodations for students who have celiac disease. At least one student had complained to the federal government after the school would not exempt that student from a meal plan even though the student couldn't eat the food. "All colleges should heed this settlement and take steps to make accommodations," says Alice Bast, president and founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. "To our community this is definitely a precedent." Under the agreement, Lesley University says it will not only provide gluten-free options in its dining hall but also allow students to pre-order, provide a dedicated space for storage and preparation to avoid contamination, train staff about food allergies and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to affected students. "We are not saying what the general meal plan has to serve or not," Hill says. "We are saying that when a college has a mandatory meal plan they have to be prepared to make reasonable modifications to that meal plan to accommodate students with disabilities."
Food industry in general has adopted label declaration as a means of forewarning of consumers regarding the likelihood of presence of even traces of one or the other allergens which are about eight in number recognized at present. Probably this would pre-empt any likelihood of legal action by those becoming sick by consuming these foods. But catering is a different proposition and at present there does not exist any system of forewarning. Probably it is time that at least they display prominently those preparations containing any allergic components. The case reported above did result in punitive damages against the caterer but the reason for that was compulsory boarding rules preventing the students from accessing foods outside. Hostels and such other dedicated facilities should have a flexible policy that will allow inmates to take foods outside if their medical conditions demand. Alternately arrangements ought to be made for preparing special foods meeting their requirements.