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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Did Pizza Hut Discriminate Against Mom and Celiac Son?

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Celiac.com 01/20/2012 - Candi Smithson says her 2-year-old son, Preston, has severe allergies that present him from eating certain breads and dairy items, among other things. Celiac disease prevents Preston from eating anything containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.

    Pizza HutPreston also is allergic to certain milk proteins, making things like butter and other dairy products hazardous to his health.

    Smithson claims that the local pizza Hut in Muskogee, Oklahoma discriminated against her by asking her and her son to leave the restaurant. Smithson told reporters that she was in Muskogee as part of a home-schooling group to see replicas of the Niña and Pinta ships, which had been cruising the Arkansas River in recent weeks. Smithson, another parent and four children, including Preston, stopped at Pizza Hut to have lunch.

    Smithson told reporters from NewsOk.com that, before going into Pizza Hut, she had first stopped at McDonald's to get Preston a hamburger without the bun, and some french fries, which is safe for Preston to eat.

    She brought that food with her into Pizza Hut, where she planned to order pizza for the other kids. But before the group could place an order, Smithson said a waitress told her that she could not be in the store with the McDonald's items.

    Smithson told reporters that she explained the situation, but that the waitress remained unmoved.

    “I explained why I was bringing in the food, but she said it didn't matter,” Smithson said. Smithson then asked to speak to the manager. She says that the manager, who was reportedly unavailable for comment, was also unsympathetic to the situation.

    According to Smithson, the manager basically said, "We can't have this food in here, so we're going to have to ask you to leave,'” Smithson said. “I was really shocked ... we bring food into restaurants all the time, and this has never happened before.”

    Smithson told reporters that Pizza Hut had no signs indicating a no-outside-food policy, and added that the restaurant lost out on five paying customers by demanding the hamburger and fries be discarded.

    Indeed, a Pizza Hut official, who spoke to reporters on the condition he remain unnamed, says he knows of no company policies that would prevent paying customers from eating outside food in a Pizza Hut restaurant.

    According to reporters, calls to Pizza Hut's corporate offices seeking comment on this story went unreturned.

    Smithson says the actions of the Pizza Hut manager violated her son's rights as a person living with a disability. She claims food allergies that interfere with “major life activities” are considered disabilities.

    Marca Bristo, who helped craft the original Americans with Disabilities Act during the late 1980s, agrees with Smithson. Bristo served as chairman of the National Council on Disability, a position she was appointed to by former President Bill Clinton.

    Bristo said the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, was amended in 2008 to broaden what are considered “major life activities.” She said the changes were necessary because “the courts had narrowed the definition of the law” up to that point.

    Eating is listed as major life activity in the amended act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2009.

    When asked about Candi Smithson's ordeal, Birsto said, “I do think she is right to challenge this." There are some ambiguities in the law, but, basically, Bristo says, "…if a food allergy affects life activities, it's got to be considered a disability and should fall under the act.”

    Still, Smithson insists she's not looking for money. “I just want the policies changed,” she told reporters. “That way, when he gets older, he won't have to deal with things like this.”

    Has anything like this happened to you or anyone you know?  Should restaurants be flexible when paying customers need to bring in outside food for reasons concerning allergies or food sensitivities? Let us know your thoughts.

    The story was originally reported by NewsOk.com.

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    I was at a restaurant in D.C. two weeks ago to see a friend's concert. When I couldn't find anything on the menu to eat I asked to speak with the manager on duty. After explaining my diet restrictions to the manager I asked if she'd be willing to accommodate me. She actually laughed at me and said, "maybe you should've gone to another restaurant."

     

    Conversely, I was at a local Austin Grill last summer where the manager actually customized a meal for me. Shortly after my order was submitted the manager told me they didn't actually stock an important ingredient for my meal but would make a special trip to the grocery store to obtain it if I wanted. I was dumbfounded! I told him it wasn't necessary to go out of his way, but he insisted.

     

    Although these two experiences are extreme, my point is this - it's hard enough living with any disability, much more so when you're disability involves having to scrutinize anything and everything that goes into your body as with celiac disease. What most people don't realize however, is that celiac disease affects not just what you eat or drink! Everything must be considered in light of whether it may or may not cause immediate distress and/or contribute to some future consequence. As a celiac you have to scrutinize everything from medications (as well as vitamins & supplements) prescribed to address the symptoms originating from celiac disease, to common household items such as soaps, shampoo's, deodorants, lotions, etc, etc...ad nauseam.

     

    Advances in awareness of celiac disease notwithstanding, much more should be done to improve the quality of life for people who suffer (in whatever degree) from this life-altering disease; including legislation prohibiting discrimination such as Candi Smithson & her son encountered at Pizza Hut!

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    Waah, waah, waah. Get over it, already. Just get the food to go and eat in the car, or better still, don't eat at Pizza Hut ever again. I have celiac, and that is my problem - - Not McDonald's, Not Pizza Hut's - - but MY PROBLEM!!! It is not like they refused service on the grounds of race, color or failed to have handicap accessible areas. It seems that people are always looking for reasons to be upset these days for every little problem they encounter.

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    This one is really bizarre -- because McDonald's is owned by the same company (Yum Brands) as Pizza Hut! Papa John's and Happy Joe's (local restaurant chain) both have gluten-free pizza so let's get the Hut to do the same -- and let parents be parents!

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    I just read last week that McDonald's French fries have wheat and eggs in their starting agent. This mother should probably think twice about feeding her 2 year old son these fries if he is gluten-free.

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    I live in OK and am very sorry you were treated in that way when all you were trying to do was keep gluten from the one child that it would make sick. It is difficult enough for a Granny (72) to start out on this but I hope we can find a pizza place who will allow the one child to bring in what he can eat. Shame on you Pizza Hut.

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    I have brought food into other chains and explained that my son had celiac disease and couldn't eat most of their food. The staff and manager were totally understanding. They understood that I would be paying for 3 other people and didn't want to lose our business, plus word of mouth and social media could cripple a chain by stories like this one.

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    When I first saw the overview I thought "why would she take her child to Pizza Hut if he can't eat there" but when I read that she had gotten him something to eat elsewhere and that was a problem with the restaurant I could NOT believe it!

     

    I've been out to restaurants with groups of people from my office and I take my own food because I can't there. And I haven't had an issue yet. I think Pizza Hut owes her at least an apology.

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    I and my husband were asked to "not eat" at Applebee's once when I simply asked if the mashed potatoes had any added starches and had brought my own "pure" butter to use on the potato. I was told that Applebees " prefers not to have people in their restaurants with food allergies"

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    I have never assumed I could just bring food in to another restaurant....I always call ahead! We celiacs need to remember that the 'world' of food vendors is still getting up to speed. you all should have stayed and eaten at McDonald's so your son wouldn't have to feel singled out.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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