Food services vulnerable to allergy suits

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WASHINGTON — People with severe food allergies have a new tool in their attempt to find menus that fit their diet: federal disabilities law. And that could leave schools, restaurants and anyplace else that serves food more vulnerable to legal challenges over food sensitivities.

A settlement stemming from a lack of gluten-free foods available to students at a Massachusetts university could serve as a precedent for people with other allergies or conditions, including peanut sensitivities or diabetes. Institutions and businesses subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act could be open to lawsuits if they fail to honor requests for accommodations by people with food allergies.

Colleges and universities are especially vulnerable because they know their students and often require them to eat on campus, Eve Hill of the Justice Department’s civil rights division says. But a restaurant also could be liable if it blatantly ignored a customer’s request for certain foods and caused that person to become ill, though that case might be harder to argue if the customer had just walked in off the street, Hill says.

The settlement with Lesley University, reached last month but drawing little attention, will require the Cambridge, Mass., institution to serve gluten-free foods and make other accommodations for students who have celiac disease. At least one student complained to the federal government after the school would not exempt the student from a meal plan even though the student couldn’t eat the food.

People who suffer from celiac disease don’t absorb nutrients well and can get sick from the gluten found in wheat, rye and barley. The illness, which affects around 2 million Americans, causes abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea, and people who have it can suffer weight loss, fatigue, rashes and other problems. Celiac is a diagnosed illness that is more severe than gluten sensitivity, which some people self-diagnose.

Ten years ago, most people had never heard of celiac disease. But awareness has exploded in recent years, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

Gluten-free diets have expanded beyond those with celiac disease. Millions of people are buying gluten-free foods because they say they make them feel better, even if they don’t have a wheat allergy. Americans were expected to spend $7 billion on gluten-free foods last year.

With so many people suddenly concerned with gluten content, colleges and universities have had to make accommodations. Some will allow students to be exempted from meal plans, while others will work with students individually. They may need to do even more now as the federal government is watching.

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