As a mom, I wouldn’t dream of bringing peanut-laden snacks for my sons after being told there was a child in the class with a serious peanut allergy. Our meetings should be likewise considerate of people with food allergies—because it’s the right thing to do. If that’s not reason enough, then because of the growing risk of liability for failing to do so.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) estimates that 15 million Americans have food allergies; nine million of those are adults. Seventeen million Europeans have food allergies. These figures don’t even include people with other dietary restrictions (e.g., low-sodium, low-cholesterol) or people following specific diets or styles of eating (e.g., Paleo, vegetarian).
Thrive! Meetings & Events, which has a special expertise in managing food allergies at meetings and events, estimates that 38% of meeting attendees worldwide have food allergies or other dietary restrictions. FARE suggests that close to half of fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside the home, which could easily include meetings or eating while traveling. It’s simply not possible for meeting planners to ignore the problem and yet planners often ask me, “Do I have to provide special meals for <insert dietary restriction>?” The ethical answer is, “Of course!” The legal answer, as is typical: “It depends.”
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came out in 1990, it was intended to be an anti-discrimination law that afforded persons with disabilities equal opportunities in employment, government and public accommodations. For clarity, a person with a disability is defined as someone with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.”
Yet for years, courts construed the ADA narrowly, and refused to grant disability status to those with severe food allergies. Cue sigh of relief from meeting planners, hotels and restaurants—and cry of frustration from those with serious food allergies.
But here’s the thing—times (and the law), they are a-changin’.
Like many new laws, over time it became apparent that the ADA was not being applied quite like it was intended. Indeed, the law was often being used as a sword rather than a shield—it was being used to exclude people from coverage rather than to include them. To fix this, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2008.
The Americans with Disabilities Act as Amended (ADAAA) made many clarifications, including what constitute “major life activities” (including eating and breathing). The amendment was made in an effort to make the ADA more inclusive and is broader in scope than the original.
The gravity of these changes was made imminently clear in 2013 with the case United States Department of Justice v. Lesley University, in which a group of students with food allergies brought a complaint that the university required them to purchase a meal plan but refused to provide food options that accommodated their special needs. The U.S. Department of Justice agreed with the students and this became the first major case to apply the ADAAA to food allergies.
There will likely be more complaints and lawsuits to come, and the meeting and hospitality industries seem likely targets.