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New bill could combat rising food allergy concerns countywide

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Legislator Josh Lafazan, an Independent from Woodbury, introduced a new bill Monday aimed at making dining across Nassau County a safer experience for those affected by food allergies. The legislation was filed on July 12 and has yet to be assigned to a committee.

Joined by Nassau County Legislators Arnold Drucker, Debra Mulé and Siela Bynoe, as well as numerous food allergy awareness advocates, Lafazan laid out the bill’s provisions, which include the creation of allergen awareness signage in restaurants countywide and the certification of at least two employees per establishment as “food safety officers.”

Lafazan said the bill’s passage would make Nassau County the state’s “most proactive municipality” in tackling food allergies, which he said affects one in 10 Americans nationwide, including 5.6 million children under 18.

“The parents I stand with here today can speak to the daily rigors and difficulties of both raising and protecting a child with food allergies,” Lafazan said. “These parents, their children and all who experience food allergies deserve our attention, our urgency, and most importantly, our action.”

Lafazan said the bill would first require all restaurants in Nassau County to display a minimum of two signs — at least one in the kitchen and one in the customers’ view — outlining the eight major food allergens, actions employees should take if they witness an allergic reaction and a notice for customers to advise employees of any food allergies or special dietary requirements.

Lafazan said similar signage is already required in states like Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan, and certain areas of New York state, including New York City and Suffolk County.

The legislation would also require restaurant owners to designate at least two employees as “food safety officers” who would take an online food allergen training program designated by the Nassau County Department of Health. The safety officer would be present at all times during a restaurant’s hours of operation to lead an allergy response plan if a customer becomes ill. Once certified, these employees would hold the designation for five years. Lafazan said the certification would be transferable between all Nassau County restaurants.

Tracy Frankel, president of the Syosset School Board and the parent of a child with food allergies, said the bill shines an “important spotlight” on the lives of those affected by food allergies who remain “vulnerable and anxious” when dining out.

The bill, she said, “will incentivize food service providers across Nassau County to become trained, responsive, appropriately and specifically staffed to address allergy concerns, and more transparent as to the actions they will take when informed about customer allergies.”

While the signage and safety officer provisions of the bill would be enforced with fines ranging from $50 to $500, the final portion of the bill tasks the Department of Health with creating an opt-in program for restaurants who take the extra step in requiring all employees to complete a food allergen awareness training program. If completed, the Department of Health would designate those establishments as “Allergy Friendly Restaurants,” and provide them with an official seal to be displayed on their advertisements, menus or websites.

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association, said the bill not only prepares families to better combat food allergies, but protects other families around them, as well as restaurateurs who can work to avoid the stressful experience associated with an allergic reaction.

“I’ve made several emergency room visits over the course of my son’s life, and I can tell you when that goes down in a public setting it’s traumatic for everyone across the board,” he said. “This is something that’s good for our families, it’s good for our community and, ultimately, it’s good for business on Long Island.”

Reynolds added that while many chefs and long-time employees understand the necessary precautions associated with protecting customers from food allergies, the opt-in portion of the bill is especially important for restaurants continuously hiring employees.

“Staff who are hired very quickly, particularly in this economy, may not understand the implications of what they’re doing, may not understand the menu and may not understand how to keep our kids safe,” he said.

Banking on bipartisan support, Lafazan said he’s begun “exploratory conversations” with the Republican caucus but anticipates the bill’s passage to be “unanimous.” Lafazan will also rely on the support of local restaurants in the hopes that many pursue the allergy friendly restaurant designation upon the bill’s passage.

Rustan Lundstrum, owner of the Coach Grill and Tavern in Oyster Bay, said his restaurant plans to be one of the first certified under the new program. “Families deserve to go out to eat and not worry that their children [will] get sick and wind up in the hospital,” he said. “My hope and my belief is that every food service establishment in Nassau County will join us to protect the health of our patrons and most importantly our children.”