Speaking Up About Food Allergies To Save Your Life

Sloane Miller Health Guide
  • Did you hear about this scary story: a 35-year-old man died of a shellfish allergy at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Georgia.

    "Rodney "Krook" Hawkins' wife, Linda, disputes the Maryville, Tenn.-based chain's account, saying -- through a family representative -- that her husband did not order the Chicken Oscar entree, which contains crab meat. Mr. Hawkins, 35, collapsed and went into anaphylactic shock ... soon after consuming the shellfish at the Ruby Tuesday on Tara Boulevard, according to an autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The welder and aspiring rapper was rushed to Southern Regional Medical Center and pronounced dead a half hour later."

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    The story is full of unanswered questions illustrating the complexities of dining out with food allergies. One's safety depends on many factors: awareness of one's allergies and the severity of those allergies; communicating those food allergy needs to appropriate foodservice staff members; how a foodservice organization has been trained on issues of food safety and food allergies; and, if there is a severe reaction, the availability of emergency medication (epinephrine).


    The interaction between patron, kitchen and server/management is crucial because there are many opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication.


    Some questions for us to ask about the story:

    • Did the patron declare his allergies to his server as life threatening and severe?
    • If he declared his allergies, did the server make a note on the order ticket about those allergies?
    • Alternatively, did the patron fully understand the nature of his allergy? Was he prepared to manage an allergic reaction with emergency medication such as epinephrine?
    • Did the patron order a dish that was clearly made with the food he was allergic to, as the restaurant states?
    • Did the server mishear the patron's order?
    • Did the server hear the order correctly, but tell the kitchen the wrong dish?
    • Did the kitchen give the server the wrong dish to serve the patron?
    • Did he use his medication when he realized he was having a severe allergic reaction?
    • Did anyone with whom he was dining know the signs of a severe allergic reaction and how to administer the appropriate medication if available?


    As anyone with food allergies knows, dining out can be risky. One's safety depends on many factors: one's awareness of one's allergies; the severity of those allergies; the availability of emergency medication (epinephrine) and how a foodservice organization has been trained on issues of food safety and food allergies.


    12 Crucial Steps to Food Allergy Safety In Restaurants
    Still, many of us with manageable food allergies can eat a safe meal and have a great time when dining out. However, there are some clear steps that one needs to take to ensure the highest degree of safety possible.


    As with anything else where safety is an issue, if you don't feel safe, leave!


    • Before going to any restaurant call ahead and speak with the manager or the chef about your allergies and their ability to deal with them. If they say they can handle them with ease, then go cautiously. (If they seem clueless, go elsewhere.)


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    • Upon entering the restaurant, let everyone -- the staff, manager and chef - know that you have food allergies and what they are specifically. Ask again if they feel they can handle them and wait for a positive reply.


    • Be clear in your communication but never rude, demanding or threatening. For example, do not say: "We will sue you if I'm served a dish with X." Instead, try: "Does your kitchen staff feel comfortable serving me an allergen-free dish?"

    • Bring an allergy card for the restaurant stating your needs in clear language. Many companies make cards in multiple languages (English, Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.) including Achoo, Select Wisely, and Allergy Translation.


    • Go over the menu, pick a dish that you are interested in and ask if that dish is free from your particular allergen.


    • Order dishes without sauces, marinades or condiments as these may have hidden food allergens in them. Get proteins grilled steamed, broiled or sautéed. Get veggies plain, steamed or sautéed without sauces.


    • Don't forget cross contamination. Where possible, request that your meal is cooked with fresh, clean utensils, pots and pans and that the ingredients for your dish do not come in contact with ingredients for another dish.


    • Always, always, always travel with your up-to-date medications. Don't leave them in the car when you're out to dinner; bring them inside the restaurant with you. If you have documented severe, life-threatening allergies, talk to your doctor about a prescription for epinephrine.


    • Make sure anyone with whom you are dining knows what an allergic reaction looks like and what to do in case of an emergency.


    • Have those instructions written out on a card in your wallet in case you are unable to speak.


    • If your allergy is severe, you should consider wearing a medical alert bracelet that clearly states your allergies. Talk with your allergist or general practitioner about the need for one.


    • If, on any level, you don't feel your needs are being heard or that there is confusion about your allergy, do not hesitate to ask for the bill and to leave without eating. It is always better to be safe than sorry.



    See also:

    Dining Out With Food Allergies

Published On: July 14, 2008