food allergies

Food allergies and restaurants: It is a public health issue

By Laurie Harada and Carla Da Silva

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

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.

Shared responsibility

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 preventative 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.

The reality is that a large number of the 2.5 million 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.

Education is key

To achieve this, education and training on food allergies and the implementation of clear processes and procedures should be universally applied throughout the foodservice 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 which require clear ingredient lists and allergen warnings.

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

About the authors:

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. For more information, visit

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