“He gave my son veal dredged in flour and a side of gluten free pasta cooked in the same water as regular pasta” Are restaurants taking gluten-free requests less seriously?

“He gave my son veal dredged in flour and a side of gluten free pasta cooked in the same water as regular pasta” Are restaurants taking gluten-free requests less seriously?

This week I received an email from a member of the Gluten Free Watchdog community about a recent restaurant experience. It is printed here with permission:

“I want to share with you some restaurant trends I am noticing.  It seems like the gluten-free diet fad has created some real issues for those of us with Celiac or real gluten intolerance.  We took my son out to dinner last weekend and he got terribly glutened.  I just called the restaurant and spoke to the chef.  He informed me that he assumes most people are just on a “gluten free diet” and that basically, that means he can ignore it.  He gave my son veal dredged in flour and a side of gluten free pasta cooked in the same water as regular pasta.  He was very sorry, etc.  I learned two things from this.  First of all, we as a community need to get the word out to restaurants that they need to take gluten free seriously.  Despite the fact that a number of people follow a gluten free diet “loosely” for whatever reason, they cannot take a chance that the diner they are serving is one of those people.  Gluten free is gluten free, period.  Second, EVERY time we get glutened, we must follow through with calls to the restaurant to let them know – how else will they get better?  Trust me, they do not like getting these calls (I can’t say that I was calm), so hopefully with enough of them the restaurants will start to care a little bit more….”

That a chef would not take a gluten-free request seriously is truly horrifying but not necessarily surprising. And mom is correct, if this happens to you it is important to take steps to contact the restaurant and complain. Here are some additional recommendations:

  1. When ordering a gluten-free meal, state that you have celiac disease or a medical reason for following a gluten-free diet. Don’t simply order an item that is marked that it can be “made without gluten” and assume that it will be. Make sure the server understands that you will get sick if you eat gluten.
  1. If you do get sick and find out from the restaurant that you were fed gluten (and even if the restaurant says your meal was gluten-free) contact the local, county, or state health department where the restaurant is located. You may want to start by searching on “[the name of your state] health department restaurant inspections” such as “Massachusetts health department restaurant inspections.” This will likely bring up various pages with contact information.
  1. Contact your local FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator. A state-by-state listing is available at http://www.fda.gov/Safety/ReportaProblem/ConsumerComplaintCoordinators/
  1. Share a copy of the FDA’s position on restaurants and gluten-free claims with the restaurant. It is available HERE and pasted below. While the FDA’s gluten-free labeling rule applies to packaged foods only, the agency also states that, “… if restaurants or other retail food establishments wish to make “gluten-free” claims (or the synonymous claims “no gluten” “free of gluten” or “without gluten”) for any of their menu items, these foods should meet all of the requirements FDA has established for a food labeled gluten-free, including not containing 20 parts per million or more gluten, whether or not the presence of gluten is due to accidental cross-contact occurring in the kitchen. If restaurants cannot ensure that the foods they prepare fully comply with FDA’s definition of gluten-free, restaurants should not refer to their foods as being “gluten-free.” 
  1. Post your restaurant stories in the comments section. If you provide an email address for the restaurant, GFWD will send them a copy of FDA’s position on restaurants and gluten-free claims.

Note: If you watched the video posted on the Nima Sensor (available HERE) you know that GFWD does not recommend using this device to test foods with heterogeneous (i.e., uneven) gluten contamination. BUT using it in a restaurant to make sure your meat wasn’t dredged through flour or your gluten-free pasta wasn’t cooked in water previously used to cook regular pasta ARE good uses. In these instances, gluten contamination will be fairly evenly distributed.


Restaurants and Gluten-Free Labeling Claims

The following statement was drafted by Rhonda Kane, MS, RD, former Consumer Safety Officer, Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Current FDA staff reviewed and slightly revised this statement and granted me (Tricia Thompson, MS, RD) permission to post the revision at www.glutenfreedietitian.com:

 In the strict sense, FDA requirements for gluten-free claims apply to only packaged foods that are subject to FDA labeling regulations. However, FDA stated the following in regards to restaurants in the preamble to its final rule on gluten-free labeling (see 78 FR 47153 at 47173, issued 8/5/13): “with respect to restaurants, FDA guidance suggests that any use of an FDA-defined food labeling claim (e.g., “fat-free” or “cholesterol-free”) on restaurant menus should be consistent with the regulatory definitions.”

 Further, both FDA regulations at 21 CFR 101.13(q)(5) (see http://tinyurl.com/lfvknn7) and Chapter IV of FDA’s guidance document titled Guidance for Industry: A Labeling Guide for Restaurants and Other Retail Food Establishments Selling Away-From-Home Food initially issued April 2008 (see http://tinyurl.com/mngrt4j) reiterate the agency’s position that restaurants should not use an FDA-defined nutrient content claim for foods sold in restaurants unless those foods meet regulatory requirements for the claim. A gluten-free claim is an avoidance claim and FDA has publicly expressed its opinion (in the Federal Register and in a guidance document) that it takes a similar approach to gluten-free claims made for foods sold in restaurants.

 Consequently, if restaurants or other retail food establishments wish to make “gluten-free” claims (or the synonymous claims “no gluten” “free of gluten” or “without gluten”) for any of their menu items, these foods should meet all of the requirements FDA has established for a food labeled gluten-free, including not containing 20 parts per million or more gluten, whether or not the presence of gluten is due to accidental cross-contact occurring in the kitchen. If restaurants cannot ensure that the foods they prepare fully comply with FDA’s definition of gluten-free, restaurants should not refer to their foods as being “gluten-free.” State and local governments play an important role in oversight of restaurants and other retail food establishments and are responsible for conducting on-site inspections of those facilities to help ensure the safety of foods served to the public. FDA expects to work with their State and local government partners with respect to gluten-free claims for foods prepared and sold in restaurants.  FDA will consider enforcement action as needed, alone or with other agencies, to protect consumers. 

 In addition, consumer advocacy/watchdog groups, other retail food establishments, manufacturers of foods labeled gluten-free, and consumers can play an important role in preventing restaurants from incorrectly using gluten-free claims for their menu items. For example, if a restaurant manager confirms that a menu item bearing a gluten-free claim is made with an ingredient prohibited by FDA regulations on gluten-free food labeling, or if any persons sensitive to gluten become sick after consuming restaurant foods claimed to be gluten-free, it is important that these cases be reported to both the overseeing state agency and to FDA (see Consumer Complaint Coordinators listed by state at http://www.fda.gov/Safety/ReportaProblem/ConsumerComplaintCoordinators/. It is believed that conducting outreach to restaurants and other retail food establishments to help educate them about FDA’s definition of gluten-free can be an effective tool to avoid inappropriate uses of the term gluten-free for foods sold by those facilities.

©Copyright January 28, 2014 by www.glutenfreedietitian.com

 Please feel free to print this article, share the url, or post to it directly.


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Comments (22)

  • Diane H Reply

    I’ve been glutened, and outright served gluten, many times and it started long before the gluten free diet “fad”. This includes at restaurants with a “good reputation” for GF, and restaurants that have had training in serving GF food. Recently I’ve been so sick that I’ve given up. I’ve stopped eating in restaurants. And I’ve switched to certified GF spices (Spicely Organics), and I’ve stopped taking probiotics – and guess what, I’m feeling better. I hope somehow, some way, someone can make eating out safe.

    November 1, 2016 at 9:18 pm
    • Tricia Thompson Reply

      Thanks for commenting, Diane. Sorry to hear you’ve been sick. In my opinion, direct contact with restaurants will be helpful. Hopefully something can be done to improve this situation.

      November 2, 2016 at 12:02 pm
  • Brittney Miller Reply

    I went to a restaurant and ordered their famous gluten free chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich for dessert. The waitress bright it out and I noticed looked… off (I had ordered it previously with no problems).
    I called the waitress back over and asked if she was sure it was GF, because (as I had previously mentioned) I had celiac and would get very sick otherwise. Her response?
    “If you ordered it gluten free, it’s gluten free.” She walked away.
    My husband, thank goodness, wasn’t satisfied. He called the manager over. She took one look at my dessert and said it was probably GF, but she’d make me another one, oversee it, and make sure it was safe.
    When she came back to the table with the new dessert, she was red faced and ultra-apologetic.
    Turns out, they had hired a new kitchen staff, and my initial dessert was, in fact…a regular cookie. They have a separate area in their kitchen for their GF orders, but her new staff wasn’t using that section, or even using the GF ingredients.
    I explained to her that had I not previously ordered the dessert, I would have started eating it… and they would have had to call an ambulance. She promised they’d do better.
    Since that day, every time I go to a restaurant, I say, “I’m not one of those crazy hipsters, I really have a disease, this will make me very sick, can you please let your kitchen staff know i have a severe allergy?” I make it humorous, and I haven’t been glutened since.
    Be your own advocate.

    November 1, 2016 at 11:16 pm
    • Tricia Thompson Reply

      Thanks for commenting Brittney. And thank goodness you caught this mistake before it was too late!

      November 2, 2016 at 12:05 pm
  • Katie Woodward Reply

    My 8 year old is a Celiac. There are only 3 local restaurants that we trust for him to eat at. This past summer we took him to a local “Olive Garden” with friends (had a gift card). I called prior & asked about the Gf menu, prep, kitchen staff knowledge, etc. & they made me feel comfortable to go there. We ordered him a steak with a side of Gf pasta. The steak came out with mashed potatoes on the plate (not Gf). I asked the waiter about this. He left “to ask”. While he was gone, another server brought the Gf pasta side. The waiter came back & took away the steak & potato plate. My sone began eating the pasta & the waiter came back & whisked that away- ” the sauce is not GF”. As you can imagine, my 8 year old did not take all of this well (although he prob handled it better than me).

    November 1, 2016 at 11:20 pm
    • Tricia Thompson Reply

      Hi Katie, It makes me so sad when this happens, especially to a child. We will be sending this Olive Garden an email that includes a link to the statement from the FDA.

      November 2, 2016 at 12:09 pm
  • Mary Carol Koester Reply

    I live in Asheville, NC, a farm to table mecca with concerned chefs. The Gluten Free Fad has made it almost impossible for me to eat out safely. 98% of the restaurants will now only assure their meal is Gluten ‘Friendly’. I have to tell them all I can’t eat there anymore.

    I also have accepted that between the confusion caused by this fad and the constant turn over of restaurant staff that I’m going to be eating at home and lumping it for quite awhile. My health must take precedence over socializing and convenience –that’s the long and short of it.

    November 2, 2016 at 2:19 pm
    • Tricia Thompson Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mary. I’m in the process of taking in all the stories posted here and on Facebook.

      November 3, 2016 at 2:27 pm
    • Suzanne Miller Reply

      Posana is all gluten-free. I eat there whenever I go to Asheville and never have had any problems; I am a celiac version of a kid in a candy shop whenever I travel there. I wish there were more restaurants like it.

      November 18, 2016 at 7:27 pm
  • Mariann Offtermatt Reply

    Thank you all for sharing your experiences. Lately I have experienced conversations with many people who believe that I am ‘so lucky’ for all the gluten-free options available in restaurants. I try to tell them that it is harder now than it was even 5 years back due to all the hype around the diet. I have been finding it consistently difficult to eat out for the past year so have altered my way of eating to accommodate the options rather than trusting in the staff to get it right. One area that has been troubling to me over the past year is dining out in establishments that post g-f beer and ciders. More often than not the beer option is one of the gluten reduced beers – Omission, Daura, Glutiny etc. This is particularly distressful when someplace where I have been trying to promote a g-f offering finally makes a choice available and disregards all the options I’ve suggested only to offer one of the g-f reduced options instead. I’m beginning to feel like a real complainer all over town but this is truly annoying to me.

    November 3, 2016 at 2:45 am
    • Tricia Thompson Reply

      Hi Mariann, just curious, are the restaurants promoting the “gluten-removed” beers as gluten-free? Unfortunately, I am seeing Omission included on an increasing number of menus and listed as gluten-free.

      November 3, 2016 at 2:30 pm
  • Laurel Reply

    After getting glutened a few too many times at restaurants that were supposedly “good” about gluten, I also try my best not to eat out at all. I’ve been living this way for 4+ years now. And I always tell the server that this is not a choice for me but a medical necessity, I’ll get really sick, etc. but it doesn’t seem to matter to many.

    I do feel comfortable-ish eating out at places with dedicated gluten-free kitchens, but even then, I have to ask questions about ingredients because there are quite a few other foods that really bother my stomach and I don’t tolerate oats, quinoa or xanthan gum very well.

    When I absolutely have to eat out at a non-dedicated GF place, I only go places with a “good” reputation, study the menu for days ahead of time and then often pick whatever “GF” item I think is least likely to be cross-contaminated by imagining the process in the kitchen. So I’ll avoid grilled items if they serve grilled stuff with a marinade for example and get a salad, but only if I can verify that they will make it in a clean bowl, etc. It’s exhausting and stressful and makes eating out no fun at all. It’s impacted my professional and personal life negatively. I don’t see any other solution though. Glutening puts me out of commission for a couple days and has lingering effects for weeks. It’s just not worth the risk.

    November 17, 2016 at 12:07 am
  • Michelle Caimotto Reply

    I always contact the restaurant first and speak directly with the chef whenever possible. If I encounter anything that I perceive to be resistance, or alack of taking me seriously, or if I’m directed to a web site, or someone makes a statement that seems obscure, or refers to something like “Gluten friendly” or, “we use no gluten ingredients in such and such…” I just don’t eat there. Even when I feel comfortable after speaking with a chef, no one is going to guarantee a GF meal due to cross contamination issues and possible litigation. I’m OK with that as long as I feel the chef understands and respects my situation. I try to order things that are prepared simply, grilled fish, meat, fresh veggies, baked or roasted, not mashed potatoes, and I just avoid pasta when eating out altogether. For one thing, a few years back I got very ill from cross contamination in canned tomatoes. If I knew for certain that sauce was prepared with only fresh ingredients. I might ask if I could bring my own noodles, and put them in a thermos to keep warm.

    November 17, 2016 at 11:38 pm
  • Doug Reply

    I’ve noticed that over the past ten years there’s an at least order of magnitude more restaurants that say they offer GF, but about the same number that are actually do GF right. That makes eating out at a new restaurant something I’m not inclined to do.

    This story is about one of my regular restaurants. I frequently visit a small town in Florida and eat at the same restaurant all the time. The chef knows me and the staff know me. I’ve never had a problem there. On this particular occasion I had a new server. I ordered a burger (no bun) and kale, something probably no one else orders. I repeated GF several times, and she acknowledged the mean was to be GF. Before my meal was served, the chef walked out to my table and asked if I had ordered the burger and kale, and when I replied that I did, he said “When I saw the order I thought you were back in town. Normally we serve kale that we keep warm in water that we used to cook pasta. That won’t work for you. For you, we always make some fresh. When I saw that order, and the sous chef taking kale from the water, I knew something was wrong. Turns out the waitress did not tell him that the order was GF. I’ll speak to her. Don’t worry about your meal, it’ll be GF.”

    Sometimes even reliable places make mistakes. Luckily, this time it was caught.

    With these mistakes even in reliable restaurants, I don’t try new restaurants. Instead, I let the “kamikaze” celiacs try them first, and wait until the restaurants develop a reputation. Then maybe I’ll try a new one.

    May 1, 2017 at 4:02 pm
  • Peggy Geddes Reply

    I have been a celiac since childhood. I have just had a problem with my thyroid med, levothyroxine. The company cannot guarantee the fillers were GF. I had been taking it w/o problem but they can change where fillers come from.

    May 1, 2017 at 4:35 pm
    • Lenore Reply

      That’s worrisome, Peggy. I also take levothyroxine. I have yet to have a problem, (or rather, yet to NOTICE a problem) but I’ll have to talk it over with my endocrinologist. My complement levels were low recently… Hopefully the medication isn’t what’s causing the problem.

      May 2, 2017 at 4:44 am
      • Peggy Gedes Reply

        I have found 3 meds that are GF. Unfortunately, Tirosint is just levothyroxine with no fillers or gluten. My doc gave me samples & felt better right away, however, it’s expensive & not covered by my insurance. But 2 companies, Milan & Lannot are GF & generic so are cheap. Hope this helps.

        May 2, 2017 at 8:11 pm
  • Jen Cafferty Reply

    One of the best features of Find Me Gluten Free is when the public puts in reviews of restaurants that claimed to be safe but were not. There are over 3 million people writing reviews on FMGF and the negative ones are just as important, if not more so, than the positive ones. We all need to continue to keep each other safe on our gluten free journey.

    May 2, 2017 at 2:50 am
  • Donna Reply

    Right after reading Jen,s suggestion I wrote to Find Me GF after my bad experience. I have celiac and hate to eat out. On my birthday I consented to go to PF Chang’s since I trusted that place with the menu and special plate. Additionally, they had a free dessert but nothing GF which was also disappointing. I was deathly ill the next night so my doctor squeezed me in and did a gluten test along with other tests. I had been glutened! I wrote to management about my
    experience and never heard a word back. I want to warn other celiacs. I would think management would want more details to solve the problem. Wrong!

    October 14, 2019 at 6:01 pm
    • Tricia Thompson Reply

      Hi Donna, I’m sorry to hear that you were sick. Please contact the restaurant directly to find out what may have happened. Please try calling PF Chang’s corporate as well.

      October 16, 2019 at 2:48 pm
  • Erin Reply

    I went to a restaurant in Siesta Key, FL, called Clayton’s. Five of the ten family members in our party were celiac (including myself), which we told the server immediately. When my food arrived, it looked different than the other food, so I asked the server again if it was gluten free. She said yes, so I ate it. I found out afterward that it was not gluten free; they gave me the wrong dish. The manager was horrible and unapologetic. All of us were in tears (including my dad) because of how awful she treated us. I posted reviews on trip advisor and yelp to warn other people with celiac to stay far far away from this place!

    June 12, 2020 at 9:58 pm
  • Flowering Tree Reply

    This is outrageous, not merely because someone got sick, but due to the breach of trust.

    If a restaurant advertises gluten free, and a customer requests gluten free, that restaurant have entered into a moral (and probably legal, but I’m not a lawyer) obligation to see to it that what they serve that customer is gluten-free, according to the agreed definition, through giving their word that this is what they will do.

    Making a genuine mistake due to not being used to being as careful about cross-contamination as most coeliacs need might be culpable or might not (depending on whether or not it was genuinely a freak of human fallibility, or sheer carelessness), but it is not at all the same as supposing you are entitled to ignore the fact that a customer ordered gluten-free.

    Whatever reasons there might be for criticising a gluten-free diet as an unhealthy choice in healthy people, people who make that choice still have the right to expect their food choices to be respected by others. It’s for them to say they don’t want to be strict about it, not for the chef of a restaurant which they are paying to provide them with a gluten-free meal. He simply does not have the right to make that judgement. The lady on my supermarket checkout might think I am unwise to eat potato crisps, but that doesn’t entitle her to sell me radish crisps as traditional potato ones! To refuse to provide gluten-free food except on a medical basis might be reasonable in some contexts, but to tell people something is gluten-free when it isn’t is wrong regardless.

    They have taken money for a service (i.e. providing a gluten-free dish) that they have then dishonestly not provided. The bad consequences make it much worse, but the attitude and action are seriously wrong anyway.

    December 6, 2021 at 5:14 pm

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