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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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One Bite Can Be Deadly

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A stop at the bakery counter proved deadly for an 11-year-old boy. While the child and his family were visiting relatives in Clarksville, TN, they stopped at a local Publix Super Market. The child wanted a “Chocolate Chew” cookie from the bakery. Because there were no signs at, or behind the counter warning of allergens or cross-contamination with allergens, his mom asked a supermarket associate if the cookie contained tree nut allergens. The clerk said no. Once back to his aunt’s house, it only took three bites for the child to know something was wrong. His mouth began burning; the cookie contained walnuts.

The boy was given Benadryl and his mother administered his epinephrine pen (EpiPen). Despite receiving various medications, his condition worsened and he became unconscious. He was rushed to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, but later died of anaphylactic shock.

A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against Publix Super Markets Inc., alleging that the store’s mislabeling and own lack of awareness on which of their products contained certain food allergens directly contributed to the child’s death.

Another case last summer took the life of a Minnesota teen with a severe dairy allergy. The 16-year-old, who couldn’t tolerate even a tiny amount of milk or cheese without going into anaphylactic shock, asked if the gluten-free pancakes served at a local café were also dairy-free. According to the lawsuit filed by his parents, employees confirmed that they were, and the cook even agreed to clean the grill before making them. After two bites, the teen felt something wrong; quickly went into anaphylactic shock. Because he forgot to bring his EpiPen and nebulizer with him, he was airlifted to hospital. He died three days later.

While both lawsuits seek damages for mental and emotional suffering and other punitive damages, both have an additional purpose – to raise awareness of food allergens that are potentially fatal in children.

Every year, thousands of Americans suffer food allergy anaphylaxis due to an undisclosed allergen, products mislabeled or not labeled at all, or the result of ingredients getting into products due to manufacturing errors or through cross-contact. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, an estimated 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies; about 150 die every year. Eight foods account for 90% of all reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. A reaction can range from a mild response (such as an itchy mouth) to anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially deadly reaction. Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction.

For those with food allergies, vigilance about food preparation and preparing for unintentional exposure is essential to staying safe. The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) recom­mends:

  • Wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace stating that you have a food allergy and are subject to severe reactions.
  • Carrying an auto-injector device con­taining epinephrine (adrenaline) that you can get by prescription and give to yourself if you think you are experiencing a food allergic reaction.
  • Seeking medical help immediately if you experience a food allergic reaction, even if you have already given yourself epinephrine, either by calling 911 or getting transportation to an emergency room.

It is also important to know when an allergic reaction has occurred. A reaction will usually develop within one hour after eating the offending food. The most common are:

  • Hives, itching, or skin rash
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body
  • Wheezing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting

Restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, etc. should take food allergies very seriously, as even tiny and invisible traces of the food can be very harmful or cause a severe and potentially fatal allergic reaction to customers. It is not enough not to include the offending food in a particular recipe. There must also be procedures in place to ensure that there is no cross-contamination from other dishes, working surfaces and kitchen utensils. Additionally, staff should be well trained to identify hidden sources of at least the most common allergens and always consider all ingredients, not only those used directly in the dish.

To learn more, visit the website of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network at www.foodallergy.org.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.

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