There is no bigger fear for a parent with a kid who has food allergies than hearing the dreaded words, “I think I’m having an allergic reaction.” As someone who is both a parent and a person living with food allergies, these words send me into a complete state of panic. Never being able to protect my kid or me fully is very disconcerting. But as parents and individuals with food allergies, we can only do so much. We need restaurants and the food service industry to begin taking responsibility for the safety of the patrons they serve.
Just recently, my teenage daughter was having lunch outside at a restaurant with my mom; it was the first time since COVID-19 hit that either of them had done so. (They are both fully vaccinated.) My kid is severely allergic to tree nuts (cashews, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, etc.) and has been since she was very young. They did all the “right” things that someone with food allergies is supposed to do: They checked the menu for the list of ingredients, and they asked the waitstaff if there were any tree nuts in the item she was ordering. Of course, nothing was listed on the menu, and the waitstaff said there were no tree nuts. Yet, as the kid enjoyed her tofu tacos with spicy mayo, she started not feeling well, her lips began to swell, and her throat became tingly.
As I mentioned, I, too, have food allergies; the most severe is an inhalation allergy to shellfish. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked restaurants and staff if they served shellfish, they tell me no, and I enter the venue only to find out that they do, in fact, serve shellfish — and off to the emergency room I go. The lack of awareness, consideration, education, and empathy in the food service industry regarding food allergies and their severity is inexcusable.
Food allergies affect close to 32 million people, 5.6 million children, and 26 million adults in the U.S. One could be allergic to numerous foods, but the top eight food allergens include soy, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, and shellfish. These are common ingredients used in most meals and most restaurants. Therefore, the food service industry must begin listing these ingredients on their menus and training their waitstaff on best practices for serving people with food allergies. At a minimum, waitstaff should know what ingredients are in the foods they are serving. However, it would also be helpful if waitstaff were proactive and asked about the food allergies of their patrons.
Thankfully, we could get the kid to the hospital quickly. She was given lots of good drugs and is feeling much better; it could have easily gone another way. Though fatal anaphylactic reactions are small, approximately 200,000 people in the U.S. require emergency care each year due to food allergies.
As a caregiver, you feel responsible when an allergic reaction occurs, and to some extent, of course, we are, but it is vital that the food service industry also feel responsible. To that end, I am grateful that Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims and others recently submitted HB 1339, which would provide “for allergen awareness and training in restaurants.” I hope that the bill passes quickly so that other families and individuals do not have to go through the terrifying experience of rushing yourself or a loved one to the emergency room due to a severe allergic reaction, something that could easily be prevented with education, knowledge, and empathy.
Marion Leary is a nurse, public health practitioner, and activist.