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Food allergies and restaurants are a public health issue

News recently of the arrest of a waiter at a Sherbrooke, Que., restaurant prompted by a customer’s severe allergic reaction has triggered a spirited public discussion into where responsibility lies in protecting Canadians with food allergies.

It’s important that we conduct this dialogue respectfully, acknowledging that this is a difficult time for all involved. One man, Simon-Pierre Canuel, almost lost his life. Another is potentially facing a criminal charge.

For individuals with food allergies and their families, stories like this hit home. Having children with multiple food allergies, we know the anxiety that can accompany the simple act of eating. One mistake, one miscommunication, or one unguarded moment can be the difference between enjoying a meal and enduring a life-threatening reaction, a heart-wrenching event for anyone to witness.

Without knowing all the facts of this specific case, or trying to imagine ourselves in these circumstances, it’s imprudent to draw conclusions or cast moral judgment.

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Food Allergy Canada has long advanced the idea that the safe management of food allergies is a shared responsibility.

Individuals — for their own protection — must strive to take ownership of their allergies. This means following important strategies to minimize the risk of an allergic reaction, including when dining out. Among these preventive strategies are communicating your allergies to restaurant staff, ensuring friends and dining companions know about your allergies, always carrying your epinephrine auto-injector — an EpiPen® — and knowing when and how to use it.

Yet less than perfect adherence to this advice does not lessen the community’s role, including that of restaurants to know what is in the food served to its customers.

With more than 2.5 million Canadians with food allergies, and one in two Canadians knowing someone with a food allergy, it is irresponsible — not to mention unwise from a business perspective — to suggest this community might not be welcome in restaurants pending the outcome of this one case.

The reality is many, many Canadians with food allergies have and will continue to dine safely and enjoyably in restaurants across the country. Numerous restaurants, from big chains to small establishments, make great efforts to be allergy-aware.

Still, if we are to reduce the risk of incidents like the one that occurred in Sherbrooke — and these incidents do occur although they are not always reported on — it is time we begin treating food allergies in restaurants as a public health issue. We take for granted many measures that help ensure consumer safety in restaurants. Processes that support reducing the risk of allergic reactions is a natural evolution.

 To achieve this, education and training on food allergies and the implementation of clear processes and procedures should be required and universally applied throughout the food-service industry.

This idea is not a novel concept. In fact these strategies — education and training — have been used effectively in other domains as part of public policy measures that have fostered understanding and saved lives. Think of the requirements for schools to have measures in place, such as staff training, to protect students at risk of anaphylaxis, and federal food-labelling rules that require clear ingredient lists and allergen warnings.

We have an opportunity to transform what was a negative — and could have been a tragic — event, into a positive outcome that brings together Canadians with food allergies and the food-service industry in a spirit of understanding and cooperation for the public good. Let’s seize the moment.

Laurie Harada is executive director of Food Allergy Canada. Carla Da Silva is a Quebec-based consultant for Food Allergy Canada. Both are mothers of sons with multiple food allergies.

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