by By Johathan Vatner | April 01, 2013

As if planning meals for the masses weren't complicated enough, the masses have gotten much pickier. According to a recent M&C Research poll, 43 percent of meeting professionals say attendees have become more aggressive about asking for foods that align with their allergies, other health restrictions and lifestyle choices. An increased awareness of allergies and diet-related sensitivities is a driving force behind the growing number of special requests, say 80 percent of planners polled. (For more, see "F&B Gets More Complicated".)

Catering to dietary restrictions is a serious matter: One wrong bite and an attendee could get very sick. "You don't want someone to miss the rest of a meeting because he or she is in the hospital," says Jennifer Grove, president and creative director of Sky Blue Events, based in Baltimore. Grove, who is allergic to all nuts and legumes, is careful to spare her guests from the frustration that she has faced as a result.

It's not just the right thing to do -- it's the law. Technically, meeting planners are legally obligated to provide safe meals to all attendees. In 2008, eating was added to the Americans with Disabilities Act as a "major life activity." In other words, people with medically necessary dietary restrictions must be provided with food they can eat, just as a person in a wheelchair is entitled to access to a ramp to enter a building.

"A food allergy, if it truly threatens someone's life, is something that is covered by the ADA," affirms Jonathan T. Howe, senior partner of the Chicago-based firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd. and M&C's legal expert. "Planners are obligated under the ADA to provide what is reasonable or readily achievable under the circumstances. Some might declare that they're vegetarians, but that's a choice. If it's medically dictated, it's not a choice."

"It becomes an EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] issue for corporations," notes Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, president of Atlanta-based Thrive! Meetings and Events. "You need to accommodate dietary needs at an equal value and quality, or refund the food portion of registration money so attendees can go out and eat."

To safely feed a crowd requires careful advance planning and a flexible, knowledgeable and talented kitchen staff. The first step for planners is understanding the reasons for all the special orders.

Food Allergies 101At Kimpton Hotels’ smoothie bars, guests select the ingredients that best suit their dietary needs.According to Food Allergy and Research Education (formerly the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network;, some 15 million Americans -- about 5 percent of the U.S. population -- have at least one food allergy. In addition, more than 21 million people are vegetarian, and one million of them fall under the more strict category of vegan (those who consume no animal food or dairy products). Clearly, planners should expect to accommodate at least some special dietary needs at most meetings and events.

Research by the Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic and other major medical organizations has identified the "top eight" food allergens as responsible for up to 90 percent of allergic reactions. The key culprits are peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, wheat, soy, dairy and eggs (problems with the last four usually lessen or cease altogether after childhood, say experts).

But people can be allergic to almost anything: meats, corn, gelatin, mustard and various preservatives, to name a few. Of 8,000 attendees at a recent event catered by Stamford, Conn.-based Centerplate, some 240 different combinations of food allergies and other dietary restrictions were in some way acknowledged. These included religious restrictions, such as kosher and halal; lifestyle choices, including the many variations of vegetarianism; and diets prescribed for people with diabetes.

While some allergies can be so mild that those who have them don't realize it, others can cause serious bouts of throat swelling, inflamed skin, a drop in blood pressure and even death. In most cases, ingesting the offending food is necessary to cause a reaction, but sometimes even contact with airborne particles can trigger the allergy. For example, people who are severely allergic to peanuts might be in danger if someone across the table merely cracks open a peanut shell. 

Food "intolerances," marked by the digestive system having difficulties processing certain foods, are not allergies per se, but they can be just as serious. Celiac disease, for example, is a severe intolerance in which even a few molecules of gluten -- a protein substance most often encountered in wheat flour -- can damage the intestinal wall. More than two million people in the United States have the disease, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (, a service of the National Institutes of Health.

Clearly, these considerations put a new twist on selecting event menus. However, planners can take heart in knowing that effective communication with both attendees and chefs or caterers can solve most problems.

Following are tips from experts for providing safe and enjoyable meals for attendees with special dietary needs.