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Feds: Severe food allergy is a disability

WASHINGTON -- Allergic to gluten? What about peanuts? Federal disabilities law may be able to help.

The Justice Department said in a recent settlement with a Massachusetts college that severe food allergies can be considered a disability under the law. That gives those who suffer from such allergies a new avenue in seeking menus that fit their diet.

The decision could leave schools, restaurants and other places that serve food more exposed to legal challenges if they fail to honor requests for accommodations by people with food allergies.

Colleges and universities are especially vulnerable because they often require students to eat on campus, said Eve Hill of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

A restaurant also could be liable if it blatantly ignored a regular customer's request for certain foods and that person became ill.

The settlement with Lesley University of Cambridge, Mass., reached last month, will require it to serve gluten-free foods and make other accommodations for students who have celiac disease.

At least one student had complained to the federal government after the school would not exempt that student from a meal plan even though the student couldn't eat the food.

"All colleges should heed this settlement," said Alice Bast, president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. "To our community, this is definitely a precedent."

Under the agreement, Lesley University says it will not only provide gluten-free options in its dining hall but also allow students to pre-order them.

It will also provide a dedicated space for storage and preparation to avoid contamination from food ingredients containing gluten, train staff about food allergies and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to affected students.

"When a college has a mandatory meal plan, they have to be prepared to make reasonable modifications to that meal plan to accommodate students with disabilities," Hill said.

People who suffer from celiac disease don't absorb nutrients well and can get sick from gluten found in wheat, rye and barley.

The illness affects about 2 million Americans.

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