State health officials are proposing new food safety regulations that would require restaurants to make their employees and customers more aware of food allergies.
If the rules are approved, thousands of food service workers in Massachusetts would need additional training about major food allergens and their symptoms.
Restaurants would also have to put a notice on their printed menus asking customers to inform their waiter or waitress if they have a food allergy.
"What this new law will bring is consistency and uniformity in the training of all individuals who are required to take food safety training as part of their job," said Suzanne Condon, director of the state Department of Public Health's Bureau of Environmental Health.
Condon also said the proposal "puts the onus on the customer to tell the food establishment if they have an allergy so that action can be taken — and I think, given the fact that food allergies seem to be on the rise, it makes sense to have that kind of shared responsibility."
However, according to a lawyer for the department, restaurants would not be shielded from possible legal liability if a customer experienced a food allergy while eating there.
The additional training would require certain employees who handle food to watch an educational video on major food allergies, which can include severe and sometimes fatal reactions to milk, eggs, wheat, soy, and some types of fish and nuts.
The video would also address celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine caused by eating gluten or other proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and possibly oats.
The regulations would also require restaurants to display a "food allergy awareness poster" in their work areas describing what precautions to take if a customer has allergies, as well as what emergency procedures to follow if a customer has an allergic reaction to a food.
Condon said a major goal of the training and educational materials is to reduce so-called cross-contamination during food preparation.
"If a person who's preparing food chops up nuts for a certain salad," she explained, "and then if everything isn't cleaned off and they put the next set of ingredients down for a different dish, that's where you could get a peanut allergy transferred."
The note to customers on printed menus would have to state the following: "Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy."
State officials said an adhesive label imprinted with that message would be sufficient, sparing restaurants the cost of reprinting all their menus. They also said that requirement would not apply to chain restaurants that have only menu boards.
An estimated 24,000 food establishments would be affected by the proposed rules, which will be discussed at a public hearing as early as next month and voted on by the state's Public Health Council in the spring.
If approved, the new regulations would tentatively go into effect in July.
"The aim is really to make a dining experience more pleasurable for everyone," Condon said, "and to reduce the likelihood that someone may have an adverse reaction."
Last year, state public health officials passed another regulation affecting food establishments statewide; it requires chain restaurants to prominently display the calorie content of their food offerings on their menus or menu boards.
This program aired on February 11, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.