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Did Pizza Hut Discriminate Against Mom and Celiac Son? 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 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.

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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

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36 Responses:

Wendi Brant
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said this on
20 Jan 2012 4:48:16 AM PST
She is oblivious to the fact that the burger and French fries both contain gluten. It even states that on the McDonald's website! She should really research what her son can safely eat!

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said this on
20 Jan 2012 5:57:13 AM PST
Did they bother to check with the health department. You can't bring food into any eating establishments in Michigan. I tend to bring in disposable packages of dressing BUT I never bring in food nor do I expect them to allow it.

C Sams
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said this on
20 Jan 2012 8:51:28 AM PST
If her son is allergic to milk, he shouldn't be eating McDonald's fries. She needs to check the ingredient list.

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said this on
20 Jan 2012 9:38:03 AM PST
Pizza Hut was wrong to kick the woman and her son out, under the circumstances. I have celiac and I'm allergic to corn and sulfites. I have taken my own foods from home, into some restaurants. I was never told to leave, and was treated with kindness and respect by the staff. Pizza Hut should be ashamed of the treatment given to those people, by their employees.

Robena Lasley
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said this on
23 Jan 2012 6:32:55 AM PST
I have been diagnosed as gluten sensitive plus numerous other food sensitives. It is extremely hard to safely eat in restaurants. I feel bringing outside food into a restaurant should definitely be allowed as we are very limited in our choices. I am a paying customer as I always order something, plus my husband also eats a normal meal, so can't imagine why we should be told to leave. I would love to eat normally like other people do, but unfortunately that is impossible. I am proud of the young mother standing up for her sons rights to be somewhat normal. Go Mom!

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 6:33:47 AM PST
As a celiac, I absolutely agree with Smithson's actions. There have been instances where it was necessary for me to bring my own food while dining with others. I have two siblings who also have celiac disease and travel extensively with their jobs. If a restaurant cannot accommodate them during a business meeting or function, what are they to do?

My son has type I diabetes and must carry a sport sack with his glucose meter, emergency glucagon kit, and snacks. When we enter theme parks or sporting events, and his bag is searched, we are exempted from the "no outside food" rule because he must always have a source of carbohydrate on hand to treat low blood sugar. It's really not any different for those with food allergies - one must eat. Period.

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 6:46:25 AM PST
You should ABSOLUTELY be allowed to; that was very inconsiderate and insensitive for them to do that!! If they can't offer something other than gluten and dairy then they need to make exceptions. Shame on them!!

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 7:29:02 AM PST
Interesting - McDonald's fries have a wheat based coating. He can eat them?

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said this on
30 Jan 2012 12:56:27 PM PST
You are both right and wrong. It breaks down like this:

From reading the list of ingredients in any of McDonald’s food, one would assume that their French fries are not gluten free. The gluten culprit is natural beef flavor in the oil that is used to par fry the fries before they are shipped to the restaurants.
vegetable oil (canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor [wheat and milk derivatives]
It clearly states that they contain wheat. However, it’s not as straight forward as it seems.
The Fries Don’t Contain Gluten: The company that supplies the oil has had it tested at a leading independent food testing lab. McDonald’s has also had their finished French fries tested at the same lab. No gluten was detected using a test that is sensitive to 3 parts per million. (The proposed definition of gluten free is 20 parts per million.) The reason the tests are negative despite wheat being an ingredient is that the beef flavor is so highly processed that no detectable gluten remains.

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said this on
03 Feb 2012 3:06:11 PM PST
I really hope what you are saying is true. Can you please list the reference material or phone calls you made to find out McDonald's fries and hamburgers are gluten free? It would help me and I know others.

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 8:55:41 AM PST
I too was asked to take my "outside food" which was a salad from Perkins, outside at a Paradisio restaurant . The manager was very rude to say the least.

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 9:52:27 AM PST
This has happened to me several times. The restaurants say it has to do with food safety codes. They don't want to be liable if someone get sick eating someone else's food in their establishment. Seems like quite a stretch to me and it is very frustrating. I think it is also to prevent people from abusing it and bringing in outside food and not paying for food there, since they still have to pay the rent and utilities on the facility and it would take up a seat of a paying customer.

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 10:00:43 AM PST
She is feeding her child McDonald's French fries? Last I heard, they are not gluten free.

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 12:48:49 PM PST
This is not the case in which these people were bringing their food from another restaurant to eat it at Pizza Hut Restaurant, this was one child form a group of people and the mother explained to the waitress why she was bringing his food in. If pizza Hut made hamburgers without feelers I can see why they did not like somebody bringing in a hamburger from another place. I think it is better for Pizza Hut's business to let the child eat his hamburger with the group who are getting Pizza Hut pizza. Just by reading this, I think their judgment was out of place and bad for business, I certainly will not be visiting a Pizza Hut unless they change this stupid attitude.

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 1:13:11 PM PST
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 CD 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, nauseam.

Advances in awareness of CD 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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said this on
23 Jan 2012 1:50:35 PM PST
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.

Brent Bielema
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said this on
23 Jan 2012 3:17:43 PM PST
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 GF pizza so let's get the Hut to do the same -- and let parents be parents!

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said this on
01 Feb 2012 3:21:10 PM PST
McDonald's is not owned by Yum Brands.

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 3:41:49 PM PST
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 GF.

Debora Hanson
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said this on
23 Jan 2012 3:46:47 PM PST
Well done! I hope you send this to the major network morning news and talk shows - I bet one of them would cover it.

Lynn Cassidy
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said this on
23 Jan 2012 4:01:56 PM PST
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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said this on
23 Jan 2012 4:45:04 PM PST
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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said this on
23 Jan 2012 4:59:38 PM PST
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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said this on
23 Jan 2012 5:21:04 PM PST
Interesting! I agree with the parent that her son should not be discriminated against. It is difficult to eat at most restaurants and to have this happen is sad.

Clair C.
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said this on
23 Jan 2012 5:30:50 PM PST
This was certainly discrimination.

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said this on
23 Jan 2012 5:33:22 PM PST
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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said this on
23 Jan 2012 6:08:37 PM PST
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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said this on
23 Jan 2012 7:24:44 PM PST
Great article.

I wonder if there are state food laws that have to do with this. Like whatever food place has a license so no food can be brought in from outside or it would violate the law. That law is true in many states.

There has to be more. I can't imagine why a restaurant would kick someone out... especially after the person explained the situation.

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said this on
24 Jan 2012 4:13:55 AM PST
I'm a celiac and a long-time member of the food-service industry. I'm also a bartender in a college town. Our restaurant's stated policy is "no outside food or beverage except for sealed, prepackaged food for allergy/dietary reasons only". Additionally, I work in an Asian restaurant--a segment of the industry that is notorious for as many incidents of trumped-up claims of food safety issues as real ones. I will say that it is perfectly reasonable for RESTAURANT X to deny the average person from bringing prepared food from outside establishments into their own restaurant for liability reasons. If the McDonald's was contaminated and the customer ate it in RESTAURANT X's establishment, there IS legal precedent for a lawsuit. By the same token, if someone brings a bottle of liquid into a licensed liquor-serving establishment, the establishment can be held liable if the liquid contains any sort of alcohol that is not legal in that state or if the person drinking it is underage. That is the legal side of the matter. On the side of reality, however, a restaurant manager should be able to QUIETLY make an individual call in an instance such as this to ensure patrons are comfortable. OR... the patrons could very easily purchase their order for take-out. (Isn't it interesting that the customer would probably not feel equally comfortable bringing an entire Pizza Hut pizza and 6 friends into a McDonald's to enjoy the pizza there?) The bottom line is that restaurant patrons need to think about the bigger picture when entering situations such as this. As much as celiac disease really is a disability, allowing one person carte blanche free-reign in your establishment is also NOT paving the way for an equal-rights sort of environment in the long run.

Susan Maloney
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said this on
24 Jan 2012 6:49:16 AM PST
Isn't the bigger issue that we're trying to find nutritious, healthy, and TOXIN FREE foods at McDonald's AND PIZZA HUT??? Wake up, cook and prep your own safe food. I continue to be mystified as to why we as parents think that it's a "treat" to feed our children terrible foods...especially in light of often life threatening food allergies. Should we not be focusing on finding the purest, cleanest, and healthiest foods out there for ourselves and our children? Why not have a carpet picnic with grilled free range chicken, veggies and smiles? There really should be no difference between adult food and nutrition for our children's health.

Harriet Rimell
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said this on
24 Jan 2012 9:00:44 AM PST
The mother should carry a copy of the ADA act and present it if challenged and warn the restaurant that they are liable to being sued for their actions which are against the law. I have a small dog that is registered as a support dog and always wears identification but I have been challenged several times because he doesn't look like a support dog. I merely carry a copy of the ADA guidelines for support animals and present it. It works every time. Employees are not always aware of such laws. The owners should be as should the managers.

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said this on
27 Jan 2012 7:50:13 PM PST
I am a severely sensitive celiac with many other allergies and intolerances. I know that I am responsible for whatever I eat.
First, McDonald's is not safe food. Second, Pizza Hut is not a safe environment due to cross contamination. Flour dust is everywhere and on many surfaces.
Living in a smaller city, it is extremely difficult to eat out and most restaurants tell me just to bring my own food, sometimes quite rudely. I have never been asked to leave, however I always bring food from home. Applebee's was only able to prepare a "naked" salad for me, but I paid as much for a salad of lettuce, tomato, onion and carrot as my friends paid for their steak, potato, appetizer and drink. I always call ahead when eating out, which I don't do very often.
Pizza Hut should really apologize to this child. He has no control over his allergies/intolerances. I don't think it's possible to understand how we feel unless you live this life.

Anne Latham
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said this on
29 Jan 2012 7:41:44 AM PST
I believe the discrimination claim would not hold up, since McDonald's food is known to contain gluten and Pizza Hut has a salad bar.

Essentially her complaint is that a restaurant with a primarily gluten-based menu would not let her bring in gluten-containing foods from an outside source.

Supporting this type of behavior actually makes things more difficult for people with allergies by spreading incorrect information.

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said this on
01 Feb 2012 7:29:14 AM PST
There is a sandwich chain in my area, Jimmy Johns, that makes what they call an 'unwich' - any of their sandwich types wrapped in a large lettuce leaf instead of bread. Most of the branches, if you tell them you are celiac, are aware of what that is and will change gloves and prepare your unwich on a special cutting board not used to make sandwiches with bread. Obviously, there is a risk of cross-contamination, it IS a sandwich shop after all, but I've eaten there occasionally and been OK.
A couple years back, they had a special where they were giving $1 subs on one day for a couple of hours during lunch time (I forget the reason). I checked their Facebook page and it said that celiacs would be given the deal on unwiches. I went with a couple people from work (the place was slammed) and when I got to the front, the woman refused to accommodate me. She said unwiches were not eligible for the reduced price, that I HAD to get a sandwich. I explained my situation, told her their corporate page had indicated it would be all right, but she did not believe me. I asked her, "are you seriously telling me that you are going to charge me more money than all of these other people because I have a disability?" and she said, "yes".
Finally, the manager came out from the back to see what the commotion was and told her to give me the unwich. She grumbled the whole time she was making it, saying that it was ridiculous of me to come and eat in a sandwich shop anyway and how could I possibly believe there wouldn't be bread in my food?
When I got back to work, I posted my story on the corporate Facebook page and they immediately responded telling me that was *NOT* their policy and asking what store had I been to? I don't know if anything's changed there, but I won't eat at that particular branch anymore. I still occasionally eat at the restaurant, but I always visit another branch where I know they will be respectful of my requests. Sometimes, people are just stupid and it may not reflect the actual corporate policy.
Bringing things like this to light can help educate people though. Pizza Hut might make a corporate policy regarding these situations now. And other restaurants also, to avoid getting the same bad publicity in the future. Sometimes, it takes a situation like this blowing up for people to realize they need to formally address an issue.

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said this on
05 Feb 2012 8:50:32 PM PST
In 2008 I wasn't allowed to bring gluten free food into the Dollywood theme park. I was told one restaurant in the park could accommodate me, then when I got inside the park that one restaurant had some sort of problem and had to close, leaving me without food. I tried to get something from a sandwich counter (I figured I could get meat and lettuce), even after I explained what I needed I was handed my food on bun, when I explained again that I could not have the bun, the server, looking very annoyed, took the bun off threw it away and handed me the very cross-contaminated meat and lettuce.

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said this on
18 Feb 2012 12:57:25 AM PST
Hmmm, am I surprised by this article? NOPE. As I scanned through the comments people are very astute - McDonald's in the USA says their products contain gluten. Not in Canada though. Funny enough, in 6 years of full time business travel to cities in Canada, US, New Zealand and Australia, I have been refused service twice. Both times in the USA. Both times at a Marriott Hotel Restaurants. One of them was in Michigan in fact - on the Night of the Dead where I did NOT want to get in the rental car and go elsewhere. Nothing like getting a note written on a paper napkin by the cook wanting to me to sign it to absolve him of any financial responsibility if I got sick. I should have kept it and framed it. Instead I gave it to the front desk manager who made me a meal himself.
TWO THINGS I learned when traveling the 20 days a month schedule that I had in the 1990's - ONE - say please, thank-you and ask permission politely. SECOND - you CAN bring food into restaurants/food establishments. The REQUIREMENT is that they have to be sealed by the company you bought the product from and the kitchen is the one to open the package. You are only the carrier of the goods - it is the same as if the restaurant ordered the product themselves and just took it off the shelf/out of the freezer. When I found this out my traveling became SO MUCH easier. I traveled for some time with Ener-G food two slice packages of bread which in emergencies I would give to a deli to make me a sandwich (after they cleaned and I had purchased a quart of liquid to help me get the sandwich down). I also stayed quite a bit at Courtyard by Marriott and they were great at preparing me food that I purchased - such as GF pizza's etc that I found in stores. KEY - I never asked a restaurant to make me a meal with home cooked products - the products were ALWAYS sealed with ingredients professionally listed on them so that the state inspection policies were not broken. I did not want to put anyone in jeopardy at any time, however I also know that I was leading the way in having celiac accepted in dining establishments.
Ones tone and how they approach situations is also SO IMPORTANT. More than twice I have been served a gluten free meal where other diners who asked for a similar meal, well, did not ask, demanded as it was their "right", were asked to leave the establishment. Sometimes the ADA act in the USA does not do people any favors as I have found people use it to threaten others rather than respectively listening to each other and working out the issue so both parties can be successful.

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