The fatal consequences of food allergies and anaphylaxis

Allergic reactions should always be taken seriously as they can range in severity and, in the most extreme cases, can be fatal.

According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, about one in 20 children and about two in 100 adults are allergic to some foods. Commonly consumed foods such as milk, eggs, wheat, soy and nuts can cause severe allergic reactions.

Our client, Barry, tragically lost his wife of 43 years, Ruth, after she suffered an anaphylactic reaction to a café meal that she requested be dairy free. She told the wait staff she was highly allergic to dairy but there was a mix-up with meals and she was served the wrong one.

Speak up: informing people about your food allergy is your responsibility

Anyone made aware of a food allergy should take reasonable precautions to ensure their actions do not cause the allergy sufferer any harm.

When eating out at a restaurant or cafe, it’s your responsibility as an allergy sufferer to tell the wait staff what you can and can’t eat when ordering meals or drinks.

You should explain:

• which food(s) you, your child or your friend is allergic to
• the seriousness of the allergy, and
• what happens if the affected person eats the food that they are allergic to.

Your right to safety

If you’ve adequately warned staff about an allergy and suffer a reaction that causes death or injury, you may be able to sue the business through their insurer for negligence.

If you inform a food service about an allergy, they must give you accurate information of the content of the dish and make sure it does not contain the allergen specified.

When you’re eating in a more casual environment, such as at a friend or relative’s house, it’s vital that you inform them about any allergies you or your children have. The expected standard of care is lower in this situation than at a restaurant, which means a lot of legislation does not apply. In addition, ordinary people aren’t professional food handlers and can’t be expected to know all of the relevant guidelines.

How could Australian restaurants improve how they deal with allergies?

Since his wife’s death, Barry has been campaigning to improve the situation for people with allergies in Australia so that others don’t have to experience what he has been through.

“If I can get every restaurant in Australia to change the colour of the plate, or change the garnish or put a plate on top of it or something like that, so it doesn’t happen again, then I will be happy,” Mr Hickey said.

He also suggests mandatory training for hospitality staff in allergens and menus to feature dairy-free items.

“If you go through the hospitality courses there’s a subject on food safety that concentrates on the refrigerator temperatures and all things like that,” he said.

“There’s no actual subject with dealing with allergens. I just cannot believe we train up these people to go out into the marketplace when they can actually cause someone to die and we don’t say anything at all about that.”

Where can you go to for more information?

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to improving awareness of allergies in the Australian community.

In addition to promoting research on the issue, the organisation also provides guidance and support to Australians managing life with food allergies and anaphylaxis.

When it comes to allergic reactions, prevention is always better than cure. You should do whatever you can to protect yourself, your children and the people around you.

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Dimi Ioannou

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Dimi Ioannou is a Principal Lawyer and Practice Group Leader at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in charge of the firm’s Public and Product Liability team in Melbourne. Dimi is an accredited specialist in personal injury law. Dimi works in the area of public liability and represents ...

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