After her son nearly died, mom fights to close state's food allergy safety loophole

Debbie LaPlaca

Tripp Hollister wants to feel safe when he’s dining out with his family. So, when the 14-year-old with a peanut allergy asked his mom, Nicole Arpiarian, what she would do if their state senate bill died in committee this year, she assured him: “I will try again.”

Arpiarian’s determination brought about the bill titled “An Act to Improve Food Allergy Awareness” filed by Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem early last year after Tripp suffered a near-death experience in a Cambridge restaurant. 

The bill, that has been with the Joint Committee on Public Health for nearly a year, Arpiarian said, is designed to close a “loophole” in the state’s current food industry law regarding food allergy protections.  

Creem became her senate ally in introducing the bill.  

“I have a long involvement in food allergy safety,” Creem said. “Some of my own family members have food allergies and I share the concerns that many individuals face around accidental exposure. This new bill would simply provide an extra layer of protection for consumers to decrease the risk of an allergic reaction.”  

The measure seeks to amend state law Chapter 140 section 6B “Food Allergy Awareness” by inserting language that would require restaurants to have on duty a person trained in food allergy issues. This person would then oversee the coordination of safe food preparation for customers who identify food allergies.

Creem spearheaded the adoption of the food allergy awareness law many years ago. 

“I was the sponsor of first-in-the-nation legislation promoting food allergy safety in restaurants that was signed into law in 2009,” Creem said, adding, “I filed [the new bill] to build on the existing law after hearing from families who are still concerned about exposure to allergens when dining out.” 

The existing law requires persons licensed to serve food to prominently display for staff allergy reaction awareness information developed by the state Department of Public Health in consultation with the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. 

The law also called upon the public health department to develop a voluntary program for restaurants to receive a “Food Allergy Friendly” designation and to maintain a listing of those restaurants on its website. The designation requires restaurants to, in part, maintain on the premises, and make available to the public, a master list of all the ingredients used in the preparation of each food item offered.

Further, the law requires food menus to alert customers of their obligation to inform the server of food allergies and calls for a designated person to be trained and in charge. 

What the law doesn’t do, Arpiarian said, is require the person in charge to be in the restaurant when food is served.

“The slight flaw was that when they wrote the initial language, it said one person on staff must be trained in allergy awareness, but it failed to say that that person has to be on duty,” Arpiarian said.

Tripp, of Sudbury, was in the Cambridge restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday in 2018 when his parents watched him go into anaphylactic shock. Arpiarian said she had informed their server of his peanut allergy, yet a strawberry pastry he ordered for dessert contained peanut butter. An epi-pen he carries saved his life, but the remainder of Super Bowl Sunday was spent in the hospital.

 Tripp’s experience led to the realization that the law required an amendment.  

At a Joint Committee on Public Health public hearing in September, Tripp relayed his experience to lawmakers considering Sen. Creem’s bill.

Although the new language to ensure proper communication between servers and kitchen staff seems to stem from common sense, representatives of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association have reportedly pushed back calling the measure redundant to existing law. Yet, Arpiarian said, no one spoke against the bill during the hearing.

“We have 15 co-sponsors which I guess is very impressive because I’m all so very new at this,” Arpiarian said. “We’re not asking them (restaurants) to change anything in their menu, we’re just asking for customers to be aware of what is used in the kitchen.” 

A spokesperson for Sen. Creem said the Joint Committee on Public Health has until February 5 to act on the bill. If the committee reports favorably on the bill, it’ll go to the next step, which would likely be another committee. If it goes to the Senate for a vote, and passes, the bill would then go to the House for a vote. If the bill doesn’t make it to the governor before the legislative session ends on July 31, it’s dead.

“If it dies in committee, will work with the senator’s office to file again because it’s important; it affects all of our lives,” Arpiarian said. “The issue really needs the attention and it’s good for kids to see they have a voice and how our political system works.” 

If the bill passes the senate and house, it will take effect 90 days after the governor signs it.