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Restaurants and food allergens

Deaths from food allergies are more common than you may think. The Food and Drug Administration requires food manufacturers to list food allergens on their labels, but restaurants do not have to list them on their menus.

But some establishments are now trying to inform their customers.

Firebirds Wood Fire Grill offers a gluten-free menu for guests with allergies.

"The company hired a nutritionist to go through what items on our menu we can give to our guests with their dietary restrictions," said Fath Batuk, manager of the Firebirds Wood Fire Grill in Richmond, Virginia.

And they put an allergy alert on food order tickets.

"We go to the table, talk to the guest and find out exactly what causes them to get sick. And we talk to our chef to make sure that of all these ingredients that we're going to put into the meal, to make sure it's free of them," Batuk said.

Primary Health Group internist Dr. Sheila Clasbey says food allergies can be deadly.

"Minuscule amounts can really cause terrific problems for them. They can have their throats swell shut. They have to have an epinephrine pen they can administer themselves if something happens," Clasbey said.

The eight most common food allergens are eggs, fish, shellfish, milk, peanuts, tree nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds), soy and wheat.

But when you look at the menu in many restaurants, you won't find allergens listed in the ingredients, so we asked the health department why disclosure is not required.

"You're going to have an encyclopedia eventually of all the ingredients," responded Gary Hagy, Director of the Health Department's Division of Food and Environmental Services. "Where do you draw the line?"

Hagy says most allergy sufferers ask how foods are made, and says the chef must be able to answer.

"Right now we are modeling our regulations after the FDA food code, which talks about the responsibility of the person in charge of having knowledge about the major food allergens and training their employees to respond to a question," he said.

Though some people believe restaurants should disclose potential allergens.

"Absolutely, I definitely agree with that. We are all human beings. They should enjoy themselves as much as we enjoy ourselves, too," Batuk said.

But for now the responsibility falls on the customer to ask.

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