NYC Food Allergy Poster, Lappin Testimony

Here's a copy of the testimony of Council Member Jessica Lappin at last week's food allergy poster open hearing.

Testimony of Council Member Jessica Lappin

Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Proposed language for educational food allergy poster.

October 23, 2009

My name is Council Member Jessica Lappin, and I represent City Council District 5, which includes the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island.

In March, the Mayor signed into law Introduction 818, which required the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to create a poster containing information on food allergies. As the author of that legislation, I am here today to express my opposition to the proposed language for the food allergy poster.

The implementation of this bill, and what we are here today to discuss, is a very personal issue for me. Both my husband and my son suffer from food allergies. However, my situation is far from unique. The National Center for Disease Control estimates that 12 million Americans have food allergies. That amounts to 6% of children under the age of 3, and about 4% of the overall population. Food allergies are also on the rise. Between 1997 and 2007, food allergies among young people in industrialized nations increased by 18%. From this information, we can assume that restaurants in New York City will be dealing with food allergic customers on a more frequent basis.

When my family eats at a restaurant, I don’t worry that my husband will suddenly forget his allergy and order shrimp. What worries me is that someone in the kitchen will go from handling shellfish to handling my husband’s food. Or my son’s. It’s the threat of cross-contamination from someone who doesn’t understand the risks that worries me. And there is significant evidence to suggest that food service workers do not have a sufficient understanding of food allergies. A recent study revealed some worrisome information: 24% of New York City restaurant workers thought that consuming a small amount of allergen would be safe; 54% considered a buffet safe if kept clean; 25% thought that removing an allergen from a fully cooked meal was safe. I am sure that some of the food allergy experts here today will talk more specifically about this or other studies. My point is simply to illustrate that all of this data points to a real need for effective educational tools for food service workers.

If we are to accomplish the goal of this legislation, to bring down the overall number of anaphylaxis reports in the city, especially those that result in death, we need to educate all food service workers about the severity of food allergies, and reinforce this information at all possible turns. The food allergy poster that is under discussion is just such a vehicle for this information, and is a tool for reinforcement. We need to get it right the first time.

As it stands, the proposed language for the food allergy poster is not a comprehensive educational restaurant poster. In fact, the proposed poster is focused on customer service, as evidenced by language that specifically targets restaurant servers. That is a huge flaw as it ignores the many other instances at which food can become contaminated. A comprehensive educational poster needs to address food servers, preparers, and any employee involved in the handling of food.

A poster that addresses all employees involved in the handling of food needs to 1) address food handling safety issues, providing specific instructions on how to prepare food with care and attention for a food allergic customer 2) make clear those situations in which it is unacceptable to serve food to someone with food allergies 3) highlight the frequency with which food allergies occur and 4) highlight the gravity of food allergies.

I am also concerned that the Department of Health is implementing Local Law 17 in a way other than what was approved by both the New York City Council and the Mayor. The bill that was signed into law specified that any food service establishment that violates this law shall be subject to a fine no greater than one hundred dollars per violation.

However, according to the Department, violators will be charged $100 per day, and such penalty shall be doubled if the respondent is found in default. This concerns me because this legislation was the product of an effort involving many stakeholders, including food allergy experts, restaurant owners, and many of my colleagues in the Council. Changing the violation structure now is not what was discussed or approved. I respectfully request that the Department of Health please stick to the language that was agreed upon and the language that was approved by the legislative body of our city.

I hope that after the Department of Health hears what food allergy experts and concerned citizens have to say, that you will incorporate the changes suggested, and fulfill the true aim of Local Law17.

Thank you.


GFBird said…
Hi there. I just wanted to thank you for posting info about this event at DOH. I actually attended the meeting and spoke ("on the record", felt so very official)about my own troubles with eating safely in NYC. I don't have true allergies as I'm GF, but whether allergic or intolerant, we share many of the same problems with eating in the world. The day I read your post - perhaps two days prior to the event? - I had a horrible experience with a restaurant I trust and was spurred to take action! Have been meaning to write you a thank you since: Thank you!

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